Barney Curley: The stroke merchant who will forever remain in gambling lore

Late Fermanagh man the ultimate stroke merchant but remains a hero to gamblers

File photo of Barney Curley in 1984. Photo: Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

File photo of Barney Curley in 1984. Photo: Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

 

Public fascination with Barney Curley never wavered up until the renowned gambler’s death in May and was reflected recently in a documentary which focused on the famous Yellow Sam sting at Bellewstown in 1975.

“Controversial” was often media shorthand for Curley’s reputation but for those devoted to betting the ponies he was simply revered.

Even now, over 20 years later, it’s impossible to forget witnessing this almost mythical figure’s rare appearance at the Galway festival and how it prompted near hysteria in the betting ring.

At the same time as bookies dived for cover, some of the most cunning hard-nut punters imaginable - gamblers who would rather do time than be mistaken for any kind of mug - started turning very giddy indeed.

Curley became like some hawk-eyed pied-piper, seemingly oblivious to a school of people in his wake that trailed every move like love-struck groupies suddenly seeing for real someone who’d previously been only a poster over their bed.

If discarded betting tickets could have been transformed into rose petals they would have been flung before the Emperor of Irvinestown.

The man himself seemed oblivious to the excitement even when every word uttered in a couple of short interviews was greeted with either hushed awe or raucous acclaim.

That flinty figure in the Fedora was damn near a deity for those wannabes devoted to the hard task of winning easy money.

It was obvious they felt this multi-millionaire horse owner and friend of the stars was not only an exemplar but one of them, still taking the fight to that eternal baddie - the bookie.

All of which shows how bipolar gamblers can be when it comes to believing what they want to believe. Because Curley operated in a way that fundamentally contradicted most everything bettors say they want.

Punting wishlists

Since establishing that “want” is inextricably linked to the fortunes of individual pockets, it can be difficult to precisely nail down. But phrases like “transparency”, “openness” and “accountability” feature prominently in most punting wishlists.

Go into a betting shop, or examine any online gambling thread, and the overriding complaint from those who’ve done their dough is that it’s all a stitch up with owners, trainers and jockeys operating some closed shop for fleecing unfortunate punters who are keeping the whole show on the road.

Whether it is stop-jobs, jockeys giving mounts what is known in the vernacular as an “easy”, or animals giving every impression of being carthorses until winning on the day their price drops like a stone, there’s hardly a punter alive who hasn’t at some point felt conspired against by those in the know.

It’s the gambler’s contradiction - hoping against hope but always presuming the worst. It’s a narrative usually accompanied by vehement demands for the authorities to do their job and crack down on those who’re “at it.”

That’s what made the adulation of Curley so schizophrenic. Nobody ran a tighter and more secretive shop. It was the first thing he told employees: keep your mouth shut or sling your hook. There was no pretence of openness. He worked the system for himself and himself alone.

Yet he still became popularly regarded as some racing Robin Hood, taking from the rich bookmakers and giving to, well, mind your own business.

To his credit Curley never bought into some of his more fanciful press. He was much too hard-nosed a customer for that. But his name on a racecard, or even just the association of his name, would have legions of punters hugging themselves in anticipation at the next big stroke.

It never seemed to strike them that their hero could appear to employ the very methods that ordinarily would have them spitting feathers.

Some of those famous gambles included horses with nothing but duck-eggs for form figures or horses returned to action from absences that had even serious students scratching their heads to remember who they were.

Curley was adamant there was never any suggestion of fixing anything. He simply played the system with vision and seemingly limitless patience, getting horses handicapped to a level where he knew he had the edge over those compiling the odds.

Picking sides between a charismatic individual taking on faceless corporate gambling giants is never going to be any kind of choice.

Digital exercise

The modern betting landscape is one where the bookmaker all but can’t lose. Despite how their advertising conjures unlikely images of family fun, it is a ruthless digital exercise in information gathering that mostly makes it heads they win and tails you lose.

Curley’s notoriety was rooted in how rare an example he was of managing to stack the deck in his own favour sometimes. Allied to all that obvious success, he was also possessed an outlaw quality that made him appealing to every €5 accumulator merchant dreaming big.

However, there’s no contradiction in admiring the skill and nerve required to pull off these gambles and also pointing out that if the sport generally worked on the basis that Curley operated then only the hopelessly gullible would ever have a bet on it.

No one ever complains about the methods involved if they’re in on a plot. Such stings also add a hint of roguery that can be irresistible to many. Hoodwinking bookies on one day, though, almost certainly involves deceiving the majority of punters every other day with a consequent impact on public trust.

Although he insisted his laudable charity work in Africa was his most substantial achievement, Curley left an indelible impression on the old game and will be remembered for as long as people speculate on one horse finishing ahead of another.

But punters who complain about stroke-merchants and then lionize the ultimate stroke-merchant risk being accused of having that ultimate each way bet - trying to have your cake while also eating it.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.