Racing: Curley to close his stable: The country's best known punter discloses to Paul Hayward that he is to cease training

Click to follow
BARNEY CURLEY, a legend among the gambling fraternity and one of racing's foremost political crusaders, has decided to 'pack it all in' through exasperation with the structure of the industry and what he calls the 'complete apathy' of many within the sport. 'Racing's like an alcoholic,' Curley said yesterday. 'It's going to have to go all the way down before it can rise again.'

It is as a member of the elite corps of large-scale punters that Curley has risen to prominence in betting folklore, but he has also achieved success as a trainer with a small string of horses at Exning, near Newmarket. 'I've been trying to sell the last of them for the past five or six weeks,' Curley said. 'I've invested pounds 250,000 every year for the last 10 years buying horses, and it's finished.'

If Curley is unable to disperse his team they are likely to move to spare boxes at Lester and Susan Piggott's yard on Newmarket's Hamilton Road. He will, however, remain a regular figure in the betting ring.

'The only solution for racing - and I've said it for the past four years - is a strike,' Curley said. 'Every time I wake I'm more convinced it's true.'

Specifically, Curley contends that the off-course bookmaking industry is sapping the sport of resources, hence the poor prize- money levels and high admission prices on most British racecourses. He also believes that 'you can't have a bet anymore' because of the weakness of the on- couse market and the web of restrictions imposed by the High Street companies.

To provide a focus for discontent, Curley set up the Independent Racing Organisation (no relation), but failed to break through 'the wall of indifference'. 'We managed to assemble 300 members, which is a complete insult,' Curley said. 'I invested pounds 30,000 of my own money, and I've got beside me 2,000 baseball caps which I'm going to have to sell for pounds 2 each in aid of Racing Welfare.

'Stephen Lee (a co-founder) worked his backside off trying to get the thing going. He gave us an office for a year and a secretary, free of charge. He was even going to put up the money I lost. People just don't care.'

With owners reducing the size of their investments or withdrawing altogether, disaffection continues to be expressed in the columns of the trade papers (mostly by trainers, burdened with debt). 'These people complain but they never do anything about it,' Curley says. 'It's like the Roman Senate. They said 'burn Carthage' a thousand times. Well, one day they went out and burnt it.'

The idea of a strike by owners and trainers has been widely mooted among a small group of mutineers embittered by the underfunding of British racing. The theory is that a stoppage would force the Government to act as betting duty began to shrink. Curley says: 'John Harvey Jones (the industrialist) once said that the only time the Government notices you is when you're hurting it. If strike is a dirty word in England, too bad.'

In this scenario, the prospective British Horseracing Board will succeed only if it presents a radical break from the past. 'It mustn't just be the same old faces shuffled around,' Curley said. 'Racing has got to be run by people who will go out of business themselves if they don't do it properly.'

Such a grim view of racing's future is most likely to take hold in and around Newmarket, where calls to estate agents in the town yesterday confirmed the impression of retraction and despondency. Michael Knight, of Jackson Stops, reports taking on a 40-box training yard - Ravida Place - which has dropped in value from pounds 650,000 to pounds 450,000 in two years.

That, of course, simply reflects the drop in property values, but Knight also says: 'There is an air of gloom in Newmarket, for two main reasons. One is the threat that in 1993 there will be a uniform rate of VAT throughout the EC, which will mean we will have to charge 17.5 per cent on any bloodstock sold (thus substantially raising the price). Tattersalls (the sales company) have threatened to move to Ireland or France, and that is an enormous threat hanging over our heads.

'The other problem is prize- money levels and the lack of fresh money coming into racing. There are perhaps 50 yards in Newmarket and about 15 of those are probably for sale either overtly or covertly.'

Knight contrasts this with the height of the 1980s boom when 'a lot of yards were changing hands without even going through agents'. An image of multi-million-pound deals being conducted on the pavement in the High Street presents itself.

'It's no good saying: 'don't be negative about racing', Curley says. 'The time for brave faces has long since past.'

(Photograph omitted)