Sports Book Of The Week: Curley's gamble with his life

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Barney Curley

Giving a Little Back

By Nick Townsend Collins Willow pounds 15.99

IF A SINGLE word could be found to unravel the enigma that is , it would be faith. In equal measure, his religion (Roman Catholic) and self-belief are the secrets of his success and notoriety and, his family apart, the most important things in a life that has, in its time, turned the traditionally conservative world of horse racing on its head.

Curley, born in County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland, in 1939 into a non- racing family, has become one of the most ferocious gamblers of recent times. But there is much more to him than that. His father was ruined by gambling (greyhounds, rather than horses) and young Barney, though interested in betting, was studying to become a Jesuit when he contracted TB and, for a time, was close to death. When he finally recovered, more than a year later, he decided that the priesthood was not for him and determined to try and make a living by betting, while attempting to avoid his father's fate. Along the way he became manager of three successful showbands, without having any knowledge of showbusiness or pop music.

His early gambling lessons were painful ones, but he learned to watch and read horses and races as well as any trainer, a profession whose ranks he would eventually join. His first coup, which has become part of Irish racing folklore, was landed in 1975 when, without breaking a single rule, he relieved the bookmakers of pounds 300,000 with a hurdler called Yellow Sam. It was a brilliantly executed sortie, involving a trusted group of friends and the monopolisation of the only public telephone at Bellewstown racecourse (in the days before mobile phones).

Curley first came to prominence outside his native Ireland in 1984, when he successfully raffled his IRpounds 1m home, Middleton House in County Westmeath, and trousered a tidy profit by selling 9,000 tickets at IRpounds 200 each (pounds 175). The event, described by The Irish Independent as "The second great mystery of Irish racing after Shergar's disappearance" made news around the world.

Armed with his profit, and after overcoming the minor problem of whether or not the lottery was legal, Bernard Joseph Curley, horse owner/trainer, gambler and estate agent extraordinaire, decided the time was right to try his luck in England.

Success over the water followed swiftly, as did controversy, and author Nick Townsend chronicles several other huge gambles (mostly successful) as well as "The Graham Bradley Affair" and Curley's doomed attempt to be the punters' saviour with The Independent Racing Organisation, which attracted just 290 members.

Curley rarely speaks to the media. He has a deserved reputation for being difficult. But Townsend, over many strength-sapping months, has obviously gained his trust and provides us with an illuminating insight of a very private man and his secrets. One celebrated chain of stores originally decided not to carry the book, on the basis that not enough people had heard of Curley. When it appeared in the Irish best-sellers' list shortly after publication, a quick change of mind followed.

Good decision.