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Racing: Confidant seeks the next champion

Helping an apprentice, advising aristocracy - and nearly buying a football club

A knock on the door of Barney Curley's home in Newmarket. There stands 16-year-old Johnny Greeves and his father, Shaun, from Northern Ireland. The boy is an apprentice at the British Racing School and aspires to emulate the champion Flat jockey, Jamie Spencer, Tom Queally, Shane Kelly and Declan Murphy, all jockeys for whom the would-be priest turned trainer and gambler has been a mentor.

The apprentice, approaching the end of his course, needs to find a guv'nor. Curley has already arranged for him to work at Jeremy Noseda's yard. There are few more prestigious employers. "Let's hope we have a champion," says Curley as they depart. He adds drily: "It's like the Irish Embassy here at times ... but I've always believed whatever you give, you get back a hundred times."

The riders owing a debt of gratitude to Curley, who turned 67 on Thursday, are not all Irish. Frankie Dettori is another protégé. Curley counselled the Italian-born rider through troubled times earlier in his career.

Though Curley, originally from County Fermanagh, can appear an impenetrable character, intimidating even, he inspires faith; and not just within ambitious young riders. He is a confidant of many in racing, including German aristocracy. Last weekend, Curley was in Paris for the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe. He is a bloodstock adviser to Baron Georg von Ullmann, chairman of the supervisory board of one of Europe's biggest privately owned banks, and who also runs the Gestut Schlenderhan, Germany's oldest and most successful private stud, owned by his mother, the Baronin Karin von Ullmann.

The Baron is best known in Britain as the owner of the home-bred Shirocco, winner of last year's Breeders' Cup Turf and this year's Coronation Cup, but who disappointed in the Arc. The André Fabre-trained Shirocco is bound for this year's Breeders' Cup, before going to stud; though that will not be at the Gestut Schlenderhan, where Von Ullmann already stands Shirocco's sire, Monsun. The Irishman throws into the conversation the fact that the Baron has entrusted him with the task of finding a buyer for Shirocco as a stallion.

Across the yard from Curley's home, which he shares with wife Maureen, are some new boxes. At present he has nine horses, winners collectively of six races this season. You could find room for Von Ullmann's horses here should Fabre, probably the finest trainer in Europe, ever quit, I suggest. Curley comes as close as he ever does to a smile. "I asked the Baron one day, 'What would be the chance of me training some horses for you?' He told me, 'Zero'. And what about me training the Baronin's horse? 'Zero minus one ...' "

Curley has never been inhibited by the prospect of failure or a knock-back. This was the man who staged one of the most audacious coups in racing history at Bellewstown in Ireland in 1975, unburdening the bookmakers of £300,000. With the proceeds he bought a stately home, and later raffled it.

It is an attitude to life which explains why this summer he was in negotiations to buy Sunderland Football Club. "I had my own money, and wealthy business people that no one would guess I was connected with prepared to guarantee around £8 million, with more to come, on condition I was chairman," he says. "They wouldn't trust anyone else with their money."

Curley adds: "I went quietly to watch them a couple of times when the proposed deal was in its infancy, and was very impressed with the supporters' great loyalty. I thought they deserved success."

Though he enjoyed a good relationship with Niall Quinn, who became chairman and was briefly manager until appointing Roy Keane, there was always going to be one significant obstacle. That came to a head at a meeting in Dublin when all the interested parties gathered. "I laid down certain conditions, and a major one was that I should be chairman. Well, that didn't go down too well," says Curley.

"It wasn't that I wanted to stick out my chest and say that I was chairman of a football club. I just wanted to protect my people's interests. I'd have had no trouble raising all the money to buy the club myself. But finally I said, 'It's Niall's baby, and I don't think it would be fair to interfere'. So, I got up and just walked away."

Curley adds: "That's all gone now. Forgotten. Niall Quinn is a gentleman, and I would love to see him doing well. I believe what happened was destiny. It's the Man Above telling me to just concentrate on my other work."

He refers to Dafa (Direct Aid for Africa), the charity he founded over 10 years ago to help the poor and sick in Zambia. His initial goal was to raise £1m. He has achieved that, and more, and used it precisely as the name says on the tin: directly.

His efforts, and those of many racing personalities, have financed schools, facilities for adults to build furniture and make clothes and sell them, and provided food, clothing and support for orphaned children. It's all there on the Dafa website: www.dafa.co.uk. And there are no administration costs. Recently, he travelled out to Zambia with Jamie Spencer, who described the trip as "humbling".

Yet, as the avowed Catholic Curley once said: "Don't paint me a saint or anything silly like that. This is just taking out a bit of fire insurance in case things get tricky at the Pearly Gates."

Until that day, he will keep a welcome at his own gates. Another champion may just walk through them.