Antony Michael takes a look at the five biggest and most audacious gambles in horse racing history.
1 – Barney Curley: “Nobody will win as much on horse racing in 100 years”.
Notorious gambler and former racehorse trainer Barney Curley features in the top two spots on our list of the biggest gambles in racing history, positions he earned by staging two audacious stings on the bookmakers.
Curley’s first perfectly executed coup took place at Bellewstown on 26th June 1975, in which his bets made a profit of over 300,000 Irish pounds, equivalent to a figure approaching €2million in today’s currency.
The gamble revolved around a “slow but steady” horse by the name of Yellow Sam. The Liam Brennan-trained horse was purchased by Curley, who instructed his handler to train him specifically for an obscure race at Bellewstown.
Yellow Sam’s SP odds of 20/1 would have been significantly less had bookmakers taken large sums of cash on the horse, but Curley had spent weeks developing a plan and putting people in place to conceal the gamble from the bookies.
Bellewstown was Curley’s venue of choice as the track was serviced by just two telephone lines, one public telephone box and a private line belonging to the Extel company which supplied racing data to betting shops.
The vital line to the bookmakers had mysteriously been put out of use earlier in the day, thought to have been cut, leaving just one telephone line available to communicate to the course bookies who determined the starting prices of the horses.
Hundreds of Curley’s accomplices stood in bookmaker shops across Ireland with specific instructions, to place wagers between £50 and £300 on Yellow Sam at the exact time Curley’s friend Benny O’Hanlon walked into the telephone booth and pretended to place a call to a dying aunt in a non-existent hospital. This did not allow off-course bookies to lay off their liabilities with their counterparts on the course, resulting in a large pay day for Curley and friends.
Curley invested just over £15,000, his entire savings in the gamble. A plot that made him a millionaire when Yellow Sam won the race by two and a half lengths.
2 – Curley strikes again in £2million payout.
Curley hit the bookmakers for an estimated £2million in 2014, decades after his first daring plot. The well-orchestrated coup revolved around four horses running at Catterick, Lingfield and Kempton.
The quartet, who all had an association of some description with Curley, had been placed in overnight accumulators paying out in the excess of 9,000/1.
The four winners, who had all been off the racecourse for periods of between 225 and 700 days were the Des Donovan-trained Eye Of The Tiger, a former German recruit for Curley who bolted up by nine lengths in a handicap at Lingfield.
The Sophie Leech-trained Seven Summits, who won a handicap hurdle at Catterick (Curley had formerly trained him as well), Indus Valley, who landed a sprint handicap at Kempton for the aforementioned Donovan, who is Curley’s tenant in the Newmarket stable he rents, and Low Key, who provided the final winning leg of the whopping bets, trained and owned by one of Curley’s former assistants, John Butler.
Irish bookmaker Paddy Power reported losses of €1million (£817,207), while other major firms William Hill and Coral, claimed losses of £200,000 and £250,000 respectively.
3 – Stable lad collects £1million from £50 bet.
Irishman Conor Murphy, a stable lad at Lambourn-based trainer Nicky Henderson’s Seven Barrows stable placed an optimistic £50 accumulator on the yard’s five star horses four-months before the Cheltenham Festival in 2012.
Sprinter Sacre kicked off the winning spree with victory in the Arkle, Simonsig scored in the Neptune Investment Novices’ Hurdle and Bobs Worth obliged in the RSA chase.
It was left to Finian’s Rainbow (Queen Mother Champion Chase), who Murphy looked after, and Riverside Theatre (Ryanair Chase) to seal the ginormous winning bet which is believed to have been placed with Bet365.
Murphy said at the time: “I still cannot believe it, even this morning it is still sinking in. I haven’t even thought about the money yet. It was just pure luck.
“I put the bet on just before Christmas in December, I just picked the five best horses and hoped for a lot of luck, I didn’t think much about it.
“I wasn’t really thinking about the bet when they all started coming in; you try so hard to get even one winner here, the day just draws you in.”
The £1 million stable lad is now chasing glory as a trainer in America.
4 – Yorkshireman pockets £1million from 50p accumulator.
Yorkshireman Fred Craggs scooped a cool £1million from a 50p stake when his eight-horse accumulator clicked in 2008.
The lucky punter, who seemingly picked his horses by name rather than using the form book, looked on as his picks Isn’t That Lucky, Racer Forever, Dream Come True and five other runners at Sandown, Wolverhampton and Dubai romp home to land odds of 2,000,000/1, making Mr Graggs a millionaire ahead of his 60th birthday.
5 – Clockwork coup at Kilbeggan.
In 2010, an amazing and perfectly timed gamble was landed on an average evening of racing at Kilbeggan, in which it’s organisers would have won at least €200,000, only for it to become, in part, lost in translation.
A six-year-old by the name of D Four Dave was part-owned by Douglas Taylor, a managing director of MCR Group, a Dublin-based recruitment company. The firm paid 200 people to each place €200 they were given on D Four Dave, with detailed instructions issued to each in a letter (detailed below).
“Dear Employee, enclosed you will find:
A completed betting slip for the betting shop that you have been sent to. €200 in cash for which you need to place the bet.
You should also have a watch with an alarm set to go off at 6.55pm. Your job is to place the bet exactly when the alarm goes off at 6.55pm. You need to be at the counter before the alarm goes off to be in position to hand over the betting slip and say to the person at the counter “I WILL TAKE THE PRICE”.
When the person hands you back the betting slip you will pay over the €200. You then have to place the betting slip back into your envelope and return the slip immediately to your supervisor/driver along with the watch when he comes to pick you up. You can then return with your driver/supervisor to MCR office to get paid.
D Four Dave was an easy winner of the Kilbeggan Handicap Hurdle, sent off at 5/1 having been available at 14/1 in the morning. However, the plan went slightly astray when some of the runners, who were each paid €30, did not carry out the instructions with the precision intended.
It is understood that some of the employed runners could not read the note, as a vast majority of them were foreign nationals, while others tried to place the bet after the race had finished and the horse had eased home by seven lengths.
Following the race, trainer O’Dwyer admitted the owners had backed D Four Dave.
“We had a few quid on all right, as we thought it was a bad race,” he said.
Antony Michael is a writer for CheltenhamFestival.net a site dedicated to coverage of the Cheltenham Festival.