It was 20 years ago when the Irish government introduced the penalty points system, where once a motorist accumulated 12 points, they were put off the road by the courts.
The story goes that this young man took out a car loan worth a grand and put a bet on his native Waterford to have the first disqualified driver at 10-1. He then promptly clocked up the required points in a single day to become the first person convicted under the new motoring laws. He also got his money, with bookmaker Paddy Power stating, "We've been well and truly caught with our pants down."
This incident left the Department of Transport, who brought in the measures to curb speeding, more than a little red-faced, and it was rumored that the young fella flew off to Australia with his winnings and only returned when his driving ban had elapsed.
I remember thinking at the time what a bold and clever ploy to pull off, and this week, it got me thinking about the most famous betting coup in Irish history: The Legend of Yellow Sam.
This happened back in 1975, and the punter in question was Barney Curley, who grew up in a modest family in Co Fermanagh as the eldest of six kids. Life was tough in mid-20th-century Ireland, and there were days when Barney walked to school barefoot. Breakfast consisted of porridge, while meat was an occasional Sunday bonus.
Barney’s father trained greyhounds, and in 1956, he tried a betting stroke of his own when he bet big on a doped-up greyhound, which tumbled out of the race on the first bend and broke his back. It was a significant moment in Barney’s life, as the next day his father took him out to school and the pair of them emigrated to work in a petrochemical factory in Manchester.
For the next 18 months, almost everything the then-16-year-old Barney and his father made was sent back to pay off his father’s gambling debts, and what little was left went to the family.
When Barney returned to Ireland, he failed to make it as a Jesuit priest at Mungret College, and by 1962, he had a career managing showbands, which brought him to almost every town and village in Ireland. He supplemented this income with some part-time smuggling, with his big earner being Michelin tires.
One night, after being caught in a cross-border shootout between British soldiers and the IRA, he decided to pack in the showbands and make his profession as a full-time gambler. His father wasn’t happy with his decision, telling Barney, “Are you mad? The bookies have skint the whole of Ireland, and you are not going to be any different.”
“Back in 1975, everything I tried was going down the tube. I owed the bookmakers about £12,000, which was a lot of money at the time. It was my business betting horses and owing bookmakers meant you couldn’t go to the races. So I came up with this plan, and that was to win big.“
Perhaps while slogging in the factories of England, he must have thought how different his life would have turned out had his father’s dog come in.
Barney owned a few horses and approached a trainer by the name of Liam Brennan to ask him if he had a horse who could pull off a job.
“He said you only have one horse. He’s no world beater but he’s well handicapped and he’ll probably win. That's how we came to pick Yellow Sam.”
The horse was named after Barney’s father, whose nickname was Yellow Sam, and had ran nine times and never finished better than eighth.
In handicap racing, each horse is given a different weight to equalize their chances, so a horse with poor form would get a lighter weight thus increasing its chances of winning.
Barney was well known in racing circles so he needed people not connected to him to place bets so he started his plotting by drawing up a map of Ireland and placing pins of every person he knew around the country.
For the caper, Barney had scraped together £15,000 and the idea was to hit 300 betting shops in the minutes before the race started. Bands of people across Ireland had envelopes full of small denominations of cash and nobody knew which horse was picked until a half an hour before the race started.
In the 1970s, the starting price given at the racetrack was the price for all bookies in Ireland and a key part of Curley’s strategy was to stop any betting information making its way back to the track and affect the starting price.
For this reason, the race course in Bellewstown, Co Meath had been chosen because a public phone box was the sole line in and out of the racetrack at the time. Barney needed to block this telephone and he had the man for the job; Benny O’Hanlon.
Benny was a big man who took up his station in the phone box about 20 minutes before the race started.
As a queue formed outside the phone box, Benny opened the door to let everybody know that: ‘My aunt is at Drogheda Hospital and she is gravely ill. I'm just waiting for the news.’
Ten minutes later, he opened the door again, updating everyone that ‘it’s not looking good’ but at three o'clock, once the starter’s white flag went up, Benny left the phone box with a big smile on his face: ‘I think she’s going to make it.’
Yellow Sam’s starting price was 20-1 and jockey Michael Furlong brought her safely around the two-and-a-half mile race over jumps. He even passed the favorite Silver Road, ridden by the now-famous trainer Willie Mullins, in his wake as he sauntered clear to the finish.
Barney’s major coup brought in £300,000, which would be the equivalent of two million in today’s money. Such was the disgust of the bookmakers that they paid Barney his winnings in single-pound notes.
Curley proceeded to buy himself a Georgian mansion in Castletown-Geoghegan in Co Westmeath and almost 10 years later, came to national attention again when he decided to raffle off this house.
He sold 9,000 tickets at 200 quid a pop, which netted him a cool £1.8 million. He was arrested by the authorities in 1985 and threatened with jail for running an illegal lottery. But when the judge fined Curley £5000, Barney countered with ‘I’ll pay 10,000.’
In 1995, after his son died in a road traffic accident, Barney’s life went in a different direction after a priest brought him to Zambia, which was in the midst of an AIDS epidemic. The plight of the Zambian people had a huge effect on him and Curley spent the rest of his life raising millions of dollars, with help from his contacts in the racing fraternity, to build schools, clinics, and hospitals through his charity Direct Aid for Africa (DAFA).
In the years preceding his death in 2021, Barney once said: “I wouldn’t like my tombstone to read ‘He was a great gambler.’ I would rather it said ‘He tried to give a little back.’"