With a mischievous twinkle in his eye and a get-rich-quick scheme always up his sleeve, Barney Curley was a very Irish sort of scoundrel. He was a hustler, a risk-taker, occasionally a chancer – someone to be admired rather than trusted. And there is surely a compelling documentary to be made about his life and times.
Unfortunately, Barney Curley: The Man Who Beat the Bookies (RTÉ One, Monday, 9.35pm) isn’t quite that film. The biggest issue is that it tries to be two things at once.
More than half the running time is given to the “heist” Curley pulled off in the mid-1970s, in which he wrong-footed the bookies to score a jackpot worth more than €2 million in today’s money. Tacked on at the end is a wider meditation on his life and times. This, regrettably, feels like an afterthought following the racecourse shenanigans to which the programme’s title refers.
A longer running time might have given the tale room to breathe. Or perhaps the producers should have taken a leaf from Curley’s form book and gone all in on an authoritative retelling of the events at Bellewstown Racecourse, in Co Meath, in 1975 and left the autobiographical components in the cutting room.
As it is, The Man Who Beat the Bookies lurches over the finish line in a bit of a heap.
The retelling of his big coup against the bookies is, at least, skilfully done. Born in Irvinestown, Co Fermanagh, Curley relocated to Co Wicklow during the Troubles (having been caught in the crossfire of a shoot-out between the Provos and the British). There he left behind the world of show bands for that of horse racing – and was soon racking up huge losses at the bookies. To stay in business he needed a huge payday.
His solution was to enter a horse that he fancied might win – on the right course, at the right time, with the right jockey. And to then have proxies bet big on it – all while manipulating the bookmakers into thinking the horse was a literal also-ran (and to prevent them slashing the odds once they realised they were being gaslit).
Curley, who died in May aged 81, looks back with pride on the escapade. “You get buzz hoodwinking the big bookies,” he says.
“Hoodwinking” hardly does justice to his grand caper. He arranged for 300 agents around the country to place small wagers on Yellow Sam (named for his father, not a jaundice-like complexion). And he ensured individual bookmakers could not phone the racecourse, where the odds for the race were set by the on-site bookies.
This he did by having a friend commandeer the solitary phone booth, on the pretence that he was on a call to a dying relative. It was Ocean’s 11 – O’Cean’s 11? – in Co Meath.
After that, it was all down to the jockey, Michael Furlong, and to Yellow Sam. “I can remember this horse going up my outside,” says Willie Mullins, then a jobbing jockey, later a champion trainer. “I remember thinking, Where did this thing come out of?”
Yellow Sam roared to victory. “Mark my words: some bookmaker somewhere got hit with that,” one of the older bookies at the course said. Furlong was advised to leave Bellewstown without delay. Curley beat a hasty retreat too, although he would take his time collecting his winnings. “The bookmakers were terrible. They paid in single pound notes,” he says. “It was like Monopoly money.”
The story is charming. It couldn’t possibly happen today – not with gambling a multibillion-euro industry run by algorithms rather than bookies. Back in 1975, what’s more, it was still possible to see figures such as Curley as rascals with hearts of gold. A few years later, with Charles Haughey in power and Ireland foundering beneath a blizzard of brown envelopes, charismatic scoundrels were suddenly not quite so lovable.
Curley had by then moved on. Having bought and later raffled off a vast country house in Mullingar, he relocated to Britain and embedded himself in the horse industry there. He became a mentor to the future superstar jockey Frankie Dettori. There was tragedy too, when his 15 year-old-son died in a road accident.
He channelled the pain of that loss into charitable endeavours such as Direct Aid for Africa, which built schools in Zimbabwe. And at the end of his life it was clear that he took far greater pride in those accomplishments than he did in the sleight of hand he had pulled with Yellow Sam.
“We’re just passing through,” he says. “I wouldn’t like it [to read] on my tombstone ‘He’s a great gambler.’ I would like on it, ‘He tried to give a little back.’”
It’s a heart-warming sentiment, though one slightly at odds with the film’s decision to frame his life through the prism of that audacious win at Bellewstown in 1975.