Infamous to say the least; even to the likes of us who were just twinkles in our parents’ eye. Let’s set the scene- Bellewstown 26th June 1975. Barney Curley (ex trainer and professional gambler)
I’ll give you a few clues about the coup.
• The Handicapper had no chance.
• Lack of communication between the on-course and off course bookies was vital.
• Curley’s profit IR£300,000 (>€1.7m or £1.4m adjusted for inflation)
I’m sure most of you can already piece together the beginning, middle and end to this story, however here goes.
The Barney Curley owned Yellow Sam was described as a "slow but steady" horse. Curley instructed Trainer Liam Brennan to aim Yellow Sam specifically at the annual National Hunt race at Bellewstown, featuring mostly amateur jockeys. To ensure that the horse would run at least once with a much lower handicap than usual, Curley ran the horse in races at other tracks in ‘unfavourable conditions.’
So race day came, Yellow Sam's sp was 20–1. But Barney knew if large sums of money were being wagered the price would collapse which would drastically reduce the coup's potential returns. It was for this reason that Yellow Sam was to race at Bellewstown specifically, as the track was serviced by just ONE public telephone and had NO private lines at all – making it uniquely possible to disrupt communications to the course bookies who determined the starting prices for the runners (pre betfair)
In the meantime Curley's friends, acquaintances and paid bet runners stood in bookies across the country with round £50-£300 each. They also had sealed instructions to be opened upon receiving a call. No one knew beforehand which horse it was, or in which race it was running. Curley called six or seven of his people at 2.50 pm, ten minutes before the race was off and instructed them to each call ten to twenty others. In all, Curley invested just over £15,000 (his entire savings) on the gamble. Twenty-five minutes before the race was about to start, and fifteen minutes before the bets were to be placed, Benny O'Hanlon, a friend of Curley's in on the plot, walked into the telephone booth and pretended to place a call to a dying aunt in a non-existent hospital. His act was convincing, as the queue behind him waiting to use the telephone sympathetically allowed him to continue talking for half an hour, while off-course bookies were desperately trying to lay off their liabilities; struggled in vain to contact their counterparts on the course!
BLOODBATH for the bookies!!
Curley was already a face in the betting rings in Ireland and the UK so he knew his presence at the course was likely to cause concern amongst the bookies and possibly blow the lid off the coup. However he wanted to see the race first-hand, so he crept into the centre of the course and watched the race concealed in a thicket of gorse. The gamble was landed with Yellow Sam winning the 13-hurdle race by two and a half lengths!! Bookies were forced to pay out and rumour has it his winnings were paid in in single notes, filling 108 bags! Curley used the money to set up his own stables which he continued to train/pull off a few more coups!
Irish bookies amended their rules following the coup ‘bets of over £100 be placed at least half an hour before the start of the race.’
Bellewstown Race Course itself played up the coup in later years, and in 2005 ran the "Seamus Murphy Yellow Sam 30th Anniversary Hurdle", inviting Barney Curley and Liam Brennan to observe the celebrations!
Yellow Sam continued to run in other races, and in his autobiography, Curley reported having earned a further £700,000 punting on the horse before being retired.