Sporting Controversies: Wonderful devilment of Gay Future stroke still resonates

August Bank Holiday in 1974 - one of racing’s most daring scams was almost pulled off

Irish star Pierce Brosnan played trainer Edward O’Grady in the 1980 film Murphy’s Stroke. Photograph: Getty Images

Irish star Pierce Brosnan played trainer Edward O’Grady in the 1980 film Murphy’s Stroke. Photograph: Getty Images

 

The beauty of the Gay Future story is no one was harmed in its making apart from bookmakers. Even they didn’t have to pay out in the end. The British justice system took a reputational hit too. But in the mid-1970s its repute was tarnished with much more grave sins. So what helps make Gay Future one of racing’s most famous strokes is its vast charm.

However it also contains a crucial twist of pathos. Because the bottom line is that the stroke didn’t work. Everyone from bookmakers to the aristocratic British rulers of the Sport of Kings were made to look foolish by a band of wily Irish chancers who did emerge unbowed but nevertheless ultimately beaten.

It’s little wonder such an attractive storyline provoked the 1980 movie Murphy’s Stroke starring a young Pierce Brosnan. There will be other tales in this series of Irish sporting controversy that plumb far greater depths of scandal and viciousness with real harm occurring to real people. None will have the face of James Bond on the front.

Nor will there be, mixed in with the glamour, such wonderful devilment. If racing’s appeal really is built on the allure of respectable skulduggery then Gay Future’s win at a lowly track in Cumbria on an August Bank Holiday in 1974 helped stamp the sport’s roguish reputation in the popular imagination and then some.

The bare details are that a good horse, Gay Future, was prepared in Ireland by a capable trainer to run in a very bad race in Britain. There he was officially in the care of an unknown trainer and entered to run at Cartmel on the busiest day of the racing year. To top things off a quality jockey from Ireland suddenly arrived at the course to ride him. Sure enough Gay Future bolted in at 10-1.

In the movie Brosnan plays the Irish trainer, Edward O’Grady, fresh out of Blackrock College and veterinary school, with a stellar racing career in his future. The late Niall Tóibín plays the main character, Tony Murphy, a millionaire builder from Cork who drove a gold Rolls-Royce and was one of those thrusting men in mohair suits.

Cartmel Racecourse in Cumbria, scene of Gay Future’s famous gambling stroke on the August Bank Holiday in 1974. Photograph: Michael Steele/Getty Images
Cartmel Racecourse in Cumbria, scene of Gay Future’s famous gambling stroke on the August Bank Holiday in 1974. Photograph: Michael Steele/Getty Images

So technically it’s hardly a straightforward story of the ‘little guy’ rattling the establishment cage. But in a dramatic sense it unquestionably is because a betting plot carried out by Irishmen in 1970s Britain is impossible to unravel from the much wider and interwoven political context of those times.

It insures there’s far more to the Gay Future affair than frivolity. Little scraping at the glamorous surface is required to uncover a subtext with far more depth than individual sporting stories of sleaze, greed and stupidity. This was still the Britain of “No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs” where your accent could prove the difference between making it home or not in one piece after a night out.

Upon the release of Murphy’s Stroke, Clive James in his renowned Observer review column pointed to one scene after it becomes clear the gang have been foiled, and are drowning their sorrows, as reeking of the delirium of wounded national identity.

“Without touching on any subject more violent than the anger of a hoodwinked bookie, Murphy’s Stroke succeeded in being one of the more penetrating television accounts of the permanent role Ireland seems destined to play in the affairs of Britain,” the Australian critic wrote. He also pointed to how “the clever Irishmen were let down by an Englishman who behaved like a thick Mick.”

The relationship between these islands is still complicated enough to make that a killer line. Brexit, and its vociferous – and victorious – political cheerleaders, still give it resonance. So in 1974, when Tony Murphy decided on having some fun, it mattered that this Irish joke would have British racing’s establishment as its punchline.

The plot’s mechanics are of its time. It fundamentally revolved around the lack of a bookmaker’s telephone line – or “blower” – at Cartmel on a day when nine other meetings took place. That meant firms couldn’t directly contact the tiny out-of-the-way track in the Lake District to lay off money and lower the starting prices.

If such a scenario feels prehistoric in the current digital gambling environment, the central motivation is still the same: no one ever cries for the bookie.

The Englishman who supposedly let the side down knows that better than anyone. Tony Collins, the ex-public schoolboy, retired stockbroker and part-time horse trainer, was guest of honour when Cartmel celebrated the 40th anniversary of its most famous race in 2014. He expressed no regrets – “Jousting with the bookmakers isn’t like playing croquet on the vicar’s lawn.”

The subsequent movie treatment was a sure sign of where public sympathies remained, on both islands

The fact such a celebration took place at all indicates how little doubt there is in the public consciousness about who to root for in this story.

That Collins got portrayed in the movie as the dumb Englishman who brought it all crashing down is convenient but unfair. The fatal error made by Murphy and his cohorts – branded the “Cork Mafia” – was feeding information to the plummy English toff on a need to know basis. It would come back to bite them.

A month before the Cartmel race, Collins received an unnamed chestnut gelding into his yard with documents indicating him to be Gay Future. He wasn’t. He looked enough like him though to be useful. The real Gay Future continued to be prepared in Tipperary by O’Grady and was sent across the Irish Sea two days beforehand. Down a quiet country lane, the two horses got switched.

Murphy’s plan was for Gay Future to figure in various double and treble bets with two other Collins-trained horses entered to run at Plumpton and Southwell on the same day. It’s the sort of mug bet bookmakers love. The more horses in a bet the more chances one of them will lose. The trick was that the other two would be non-runners. Then all bets would change to singles on Gay Future.

As a proven winner on the Flat, Gay Future looked to be much better than his rivals in the Ulverston Novice Hurdle. On the day of the race Murphy and Co managed to get a reported £5,000 on in betting shops throughout London. Those bets would be paid on the SP. On the busiest day of the year few bookies were paying attention to non-runners at Southwell and Plumpton. Eventually they did.

Sure enough the two horses were non-runners. The talented Irish amateur jockey Tim Jones arrived at Cartmel half an hour before the race to replace a 7lb claimer. While Collins was at Plumpton as a diversion, his wife went through the Cartmel betting ring backing their other runner in the race. Other optics included soap flakes getting rubbed onto Gay Future’s flanks to suggest he was sweating his chance away.

By this time off-course bookmakers had cottoned on to something being up. But with no “blower” to the track, Ladbrokes were reduced to sending a motorbike rider from Manchester with a bag of cash to desperately try to shorten the SP. With the bank holiday traffic, and Cartmel’s remote location, he failed to get there in time.

Gay Future started at 10-1 and won easily by 15 lengths with Jones grinning as he passed the post. It was the perfect SP stroke. Except it wasn’t.

With rumours abounding, that evening a Sporting Life reporter phoned Collins’s yard and asked about the two non-runners. A stable worker told him she could see both out in a paddock and neither had moved all day. Collins hadn’t sent them to the races. He hadn’t been told the doubles and trebles were pivotal to the plot. So he hadn’t bothered travelling them across the country.

For all Collins knew, all it would have achieved was to waste diesel: in fact it holed the enterprise under the waterline.

Most bookmakers pounced on the news and refused to pay out. There were one or two notable exceptions who treated it as vagaries of the betting war, the tussle that meant, for instance, had Gay Future been beaten, or fallen, or got tripped up, there wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell of the bookies returning the loot on any kind of technicality.

“It was such a simple thing,” Collins told the Racing Post some years ago. “But that’s where we f***ed- up – if only they’d told me the full story!”

The weight of the establishment came down in Preston Crown Court in February of 1976. Both Murphy and Collins were convicted of conspiracy to defraud bookmakers. That was despite the judge making evident his feelings about whether there was even a case to answer. He all but told the jury to acquit.

Both men received nominal fines but many felt the conviction reflected widespread anti-Irish sentiment on the back of a continued IRA bombing campaign in Britain. Similar feelings may have been at play at a subsequent Jockey Club hearing when both Murphy and Collins were “warned off” for 10 years each despite there being no major breach of the rules of racing.

It felt like a vindictive final note to what was ultimately a daring piece of mischief. There were stories about Jockey Club worthies being in debt to bookies and keeping on their good sides by doling out such disproportionate penalties. In practise they barely mattered to either man. The subsequent movie treatment was a sure sign of where public sympathies remained, on both islands.

Murphy never said much about the whole thing and died in 1982, aged 52. O’Grady, who went on to become multiple champion trainer in Ireland, maintains his stance of never commenting on the matter. Yet the tale itself, helped by the later caper-movie treatment, continues to exert a grip on the popular imagination.

The stroke’s playful audacity accounts for a lot of that. There’s an exuberance to it that’s still hard to resist. Not getting away with it actually helps the retelling of a story ripe with stereotypical Irish rogues feeling the brunt of heavy-handed British authority. Maybe the only real pity is how a tale hinging on a failure to communicate properly between Irish and English still resonates.

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