Racing: A thorn in the bookies' sides

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My only connection with Barney Curley is that the light fittings that once adorned his former country residence near Newmarket now resplendently illuminate my hallway. When Frankie Dettori bought the house as his marital home it was refurbished and the said Victorian brass brackets found their way to the local second-hand furniture repository. There is no mention of them in Giving A Little Back (Collins Willow, pounds 15.99), the recently published story of Curley's life before, in and beyond racing. Which is perhaps surprising given the wealth of other detail contained in the book's close-typed 279 pages.

It is not exactly the greatest incentive to keep turning them, though, when the subject of a weighty biography admits in the first chapter that, if he is honest, he feels he has wasted his life. If the sometime trainee Jesuit priest, pop band manager, racehorse trainer and one of the most successful professional gamblers of modern times doesn't think much of what he has done in his 59 years, it is perhaps a bit of a cheek to expect anyone to pay money to read about it.

Curley's reputation to the outside observer is confrontational. There is no doubt that one of the attractions of the sport to some is its image of shadiness, to which the book panders unashamedly, and those looking for tales of strokes, scams, punts (not always successful; he lost pounds 150,000 when Golden Fleece won the 1982 Derby) and run-ins with racing's masters will certainly not be disappointed. Yellow Sam, at the little Co Meath track of Bellewstown in 1975, was the first coup; pounds 200,000 was netted at 20-1 after one of Curley's aides blocked the only phone line to the off-course betting shops. But he gives away no secrets about how to win a fortune, just tells the tales, in some detail. The sagest advice in the book is what most know anyway: use your own eyes and back your own judgement.

Whether his antics are those of a loveable rogue, a cheat, a clever man or a man who thinks he is clever, or someone in many ways naive must be left to the individual. Perhaps enough people testify in his favour to tilt the balance towards the more flattering verdict. But (and probably through no fault of his co-writer Nick Townsend), he comes across as a man of limited humour.

Apart from his brush with the priesthood, religion has played a large part in the monk-headed Irishman's life. He is Catholic-born and raised in Ulster and his account of his youth in Co Fermanagh during and just after the Second World War, and his observations on the subsequent social and political scene in the strife-torn region, make an interesting document.

It has been since Curley moved to Newmarket 14 years ago, after narrowly avoiding a three-month prison term for offences against the Gaming Act when he controversially made pounds 1m by raffling his Irish home, that he has seen himself as a thorn in the side of bookmakers and those running racing. He makes some very good points, but he has made them all before.

The death of his son Charlie in a car crash three years ago and a visit to Zambia last year have, apparently, altered his perspective and the proceeds of the book are going to Direct Aid For Africa, the charity set up by Curley and his great friend Dettori.

Another aspect that makes you think he can't be all that bad and actually might be a man of fine judgement is that he doesn't think much of John McCririck, and says so.