Punter. Protector. Philanthropist. The world is mourning Barney Curley, the bane of bookmakers, mentor of men and altruist of Africans who pulled off one of the greatest betting coups with the help of a public telephone box.

In 1975, Curley orchestrated a perfectly executed gamble on his maiden hurdler, Yellow Sam, in a lowly Bellewstown race restricted to amateur riders. Curley instructed Yellow Sam’s trainer, Liam Brennan, to target the Bellewstown event for a specific reason: the track had only one public line on which the on-course bookmakers could communicate with the outside world in the days before mobile devices, and that line was accessible only by the telephone box. One of Curley’s best friends, Benny O’Hanlon, occupied the public telephone box for the 25 minutes before Yellow Sam’s race started, making a pretend call to a pretend hospital to enquire about the health of a pretend relative, thereby preventing off-course bookmakers from laying off their liabilities with their on-course counterpart and influencing the starting price. Curley gambled everything he had – approximately IR£15,000 – on Yellow Sam, a large network of his associates placing hundreds of small bets with off-course bookmakers all over Ireland. Yellow Sam won under Michael Furlong at a starting price of 20-1, and Curley pocketed about IR£300,000, which is the equivalent of roughly $4.25 million today.

Curley was not one of the world’s smartest punters but also a trusted confidante to many of thoroughbred racing’s top jockeys, including Frankie Dettori, Tom Queally and Jamie Spencer, and the founder of Direct Aid for Africa, a charity that improves the lives of underprivileged people in Zambia.

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