The extraordinary story of Barney Curley, the fearless punter who DID beat the bookmakers

When Barney Curley, the legendary Irish racehorse trainer and professional gambler, landed a spectacular gamble with a horse he owned called Yellow Sam at the Bellewstown race course in Ireland in 1975, it was through a coup that was relatively easy to pull off.

He spread an outlay of slightly more than £15,000 across 300 betting shops using a team of trusted associates, and ensured that even if any of the high street bookmakers taking bets on the horse did become suspicious, their attempts to alert their colleagues at the track would be foiled because the solitary phone line to the Bellewstown circuit was being hogged by another of his team, pretending he was speaking to a dying relative.

Yellow Sam won Curley more than £300,000, which was then the equivalent of £2.5 million at today's values.

Modern technology means there is no way such a coup could be successful today.  Betting patterns can be evaluated in seconds and every on-course bookmaker has his own mobile phone.  The odds are weighted even more heavily than before in favour of the bookmaker and that rankled with Curley.

"People were telling me that our day had gone," Curley said. "You know, punters I knew over the years. It's finished, they said, over. I never thought like that. Because bookmakers are always trying something new, to rob punters, to get them to bite. That's what beats them. The greed."

Curley determined that he would do it again.  And 35 years later, by which time he had his own stable of horses, he did.  Not by putting his money on one horse, but on four.

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It was an extraordinary plot.  Gambling on the outcome of one race is risky enough, even if you know a horse is fit and capable of beating the opposition.  A sure thing rarely ever is. So the idea that you could prepare four horses, at peak fitness and in the right races, to win on the same day is so unlikely as to be almost unthinkable.

It is why bookmakers love multiple bets -- doubles, trebles, Yankees -- because they hardly ever win.  Yet it was in multiple bets that Curley and his associate, a statistical whizzkid called Martin Parsons, saw a weakness in the bookmakers' defences.  Multiple bets win so infrequently that patterns for bets on more than one horse simply were not monitored.

Therefore, he could employ a team of putters-on to place as many small multiple bets as he liked with hundreds of bookmakers, and so long as those putters-on behaved in an entirely normal way, doing nothing to identify themselves as anything other than mug punters with fanciful dreams, then no one would suspect anything. The scheme they concocted, the elaborate lengths to which they went to ensure it was watertight, would be worthy of a movie to rival The Sting, although there was nothing illegal - and certainly no con - in what they were doing. All Curley had to do was find four sure things...

The story of how he did it, and took the bookies for almost £4 million, is the subject of Nick Townsend's book, The Sure Thing: The Greatest Coup in Horse Racing History .

Curley never liked journalists, whom he would describe as "arseholes" even in polite company.  Yet he took Townsend into his confidence, the two having met first in the late 1980s when the Daily Mail asked Townsend to interview him, and for the first time has explained the elaborate plot in all its detail. Delving into Curley's extraordinary life story, one in which at different times he trained to be a Jesuit priest and managed a rock band and devotes himself now to helping the poor and hungry in Zambia, Townsend describes not only how he pulled it off but why.

The detail is fascinating and Townsend, who stayed in touch even after his career took him away from horse racing and into football and now knows him better than any other journalist, tells the story superbly.

The Sure Thing: The Greatest Coup in Horse Racing History (Century) is available from Amazon, Waterstones and WHSmith as well as other outlets.  Click on any of the links to buy.



Sol Campbell and the Old Harrovian: an unlikely team proves to be a winning combination

Having spent a career in defiance of professional football's stereotypes, Sol Campbell was never likely to put his name to a conventional biography.  So when it came to choosing the right person to turn his life story into words in print, the former Tottenham, Arsenal and England centre half naturally made a left-field decision.

Most players plump for a football writer, either someone they know or who at least comes with the recommendation of a publisher or agent, sometimes a teammate.  And there would have been many who admired his ability as a player who would have found his enigmatic nature an irresistible challenge.

But Campbell did not go down that route.  Indeed, even as his playing career moved towards a conclusion he was not convinced he even wanted to tell his story at all.  But then he met Simon Astaire.

They are an unlikely combination.  Astaire is from a background almost as diametrically opposed to the East End-born Campbell's as is possible. The Harrow-educated son of a wealthy stockbroker, he left school to become an agent, publicist and media advisor with a client list that included Hollywood stars and members of the British Royal Family.  Nowadays he writes novels, drawing on his experiences at school and in life, that explore the darker sides of wealth and celebrity.  But he had one thing in common with Campbell: football.  Astaire, as it happens, is a Tottenham fan.

They happened upon each other in an Italian restaurant, La Delizia, on Chelsea Manor Street in west London, just off the King's Road, near where they both live.  It consists of one long room with tables along each wall, not a place in which to hide away in a corner, so when Astaire, sipping his latte on one side of the room, had his attention drawn towards the figure sitting at a table on the other, chatting to the owner, he could not fail to recognise who it was.

"On the day we met we were the only two customers," Astaire said. "I was sitting on one side of the restaurant, he on the other. I recognised him, obviously. The owner, Michele, introduced us."

"I'd always been a football fan," he added. "I was the only boy at Harrow who took Shoot magazine. Nowadays, all the public schoolboys go to Stamford Bridge or wherever but in those days they were all rugby types.  Football was a game for oiks and I was looked upon as a pariah.

"But I had been brought up with football.  My grandfather had been a Tottenham fan and my uncle, Jarvis Astaire, was a sports impresario who used to run Wembley Stadium, so I got to see all the big games there."

They chatted. Astaire even asked him why he had left Tottenham for Arsenal, which remained a controversial issue for Tottenham fans even though, by then, Campbell was playing for Portsmouth and was about to embark on his ill-fated move to Notts County, having fallen for the con-men who duped Sven-Goran Eriksson (his take on that episode makes informative reading).  But for this new acquaintance to gain his trust took some time.

"He is fundamentally shy," Astaire said. "Very few of the people I spoke to about him spoke as if they knew him, even Lee Dixon, who used to change next to him. Thierry Henry says he did, but he was one of very few. To me, that's what makes him an interesting character.

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"But if he was slow to open up, eventually he never stopped talking.  It was as if he wanted to release everything he had inside."

That happened only after many conversations, during which Campbell rejected the notion of Astaire writing a book about him several times before he at last announced that he was ready.  After that the chapters in his life, along with the issues surrounding them and the observations Campbell wanted to make, began to emerge in detail.

The one that provoked the biggest headlines, naturally, was the assertion he makes, in the chapter covering his England career, that had he not been black he would have been captain of the national side for perhaps 10 years or more.

It was a statement controversial enough for Astaire to need an assurance from Campbell that he definitely meant what he had said. "I asked him about that and he was very clear, so I couldn't not put it in," he said. "I quoted him exactly as he said it, because he thought if he had been a different colour he would have been England captain for 10 years. He fundamentally believes that."

The claim was a debating point for several days, in print, on radio phone-ins and television shows, But, as Astaire is keen to stress, there is much more to Campbell's story than the disappointment of wearing the England captain's armband only a handful of times in his 73-cap career.  Indeed, given his reputation for reticence when confronted with a probing interviewer, it is remarkable how successful Astaire has been in persuading Campbell to share thoughts and feelings he had previously kept largely to himself.

Astaire wanted to know as much about what happened to him off the field as on it, about the character he was when not wearing a football shirt, about his upbringing in what is now the borough of Newham, a deprived area of inner-city east London, the youngest of 12 children, struggling for the attention of a father not inclined towards shows of affection.  The parts of the story that he enjoyed most, therefore, were those in which Campbell revealed his innermost thoughts.

The most compelling among them, he felt, was the one he called Lost Weekend, the episode in which Campbell walked out of Highbury at half-time during a midweek game against West Ham, unable to continue as a catalogue of stresses took their toll, the racist and homophobic abuse, and the effect on him and his recently widowed mother when his brother, John, was sent to prison for assaulting a fellow student who had accused Sol of being gay.  His form on the field began to suffer and an error-strewn first half against West Ham left him emotionally at rock bottom.

Astaire describes Campbell's escape via Eurostar to Brussels, where he stays with a female friend in whom he knows he can confide, going to ground until David Dein, the Arsenal vice-chairman, manages to track him down, without the knowledge of the English media, who report even on the following Sunday that Arsenal know nothing of his whereabouts.

This is the section where the author uses his novelistic approach to best effect.  "For me, this is the most fascinating part of the story," Astaire said. "It is something that anyone who has ever run away can identify with.  It is all about fame and how, as it is always said, the higher you climb the bigger your fall."

By the end of the project, Astaire was no less fascinated with Campbell than at the beginning. He would like to write more, similar biographies.

"I had always been intrigued by Sol Campbell and found him to be a multi-layered character, a complex personality who is difficult to get to know and who is easily misunderstood," he said.

"I have read a few football biographies and not many of them impress me because they tend to be formulaic and focus on playing careers.

"But sports people are now much more open about their lives and we will see that in the future, in their biographies, that they can be incredibly honest and that's what is fascinating to the reader."

Sol Campbell: The Authorised Biography, by Simon Astaire (Spellbinding Media) is available from Amazon, Waterstones and WHSmith.



The Six Sixes Ball Mystery: a gripping whodunnit wrapped up in a cricket story

It is common to talk about legends in sport, whether in reference to great performers or the deeds they perform. But we use the word loosely sometimes and forget its original definition, as preserved in the Oxford English Dictionary: 'A traditional story sometimes popularly regarded as historical but not authenticated.'

The story of cricket's most famous over, the one bowled by Malcolm Nash of Glamorgan at the St Helen's Ground in Swansea on August 31, 1968, has passed into cricket legend. It was the one in which Garry Sobers, then of Nottinghamshire, hit all six balls for six, a feat since repeated by four other batsman but at the time unprecedented.

Of course, there is no doubt at all that the iconic moment happened.  It is historical and authentic. Apart from all the eye witnesses present, and the official scorers, there is an any case footage in the BBC archives, the event filmed by chance as a camera crew underwent a training exercise.

But like all good legends, the story has been subject to exaggeration. In the most embellished versions, the great West Indian all-rounder's first two blows resulted in the ball being lost, either hit beyond the confines of the ground or into the crowd and not thrown back. In truth, it was only the last hit -- launched, in the words of commentator Wilf Wooller, 'way down to Swansea' - that propelled the ball out of the ground.

Poetic licence, you might say. But there was a more serious part of the story, a postscript, that was not authenticated.  It concerned an auction that took place at the South Kensington salerooms of Christie's in November, 2006.  Featured in the catalogue was the Six Sixes ball, which was being sold by Jose Miller, a former secretary of the Nottinghamshire Supporters' Association, to raise money for alterations needed to her house because of a medical condition.  The ball came with a certificate of its provenance signed by Sobers himself, so Christie's had no reason to doubt it was the real thing.  However, as journalist and broadcaster Grahame Lloyd explains in a skilfully crafted and highly absorbing book, they should have.

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Lloyd's story begins with a mysterious phone call as he was writing Six of the Best: Cricket's Most Famous Over, which was to mark the 40th anniversary of the pummeling dished out to the unfortunate Nash on that momentous August day.  It was a call that contained a warning that were he to pursue a particular line of enquiry, specifically about the ball itself, it would not be welcome.

He did not know quite what to make of the call.  As far as he was aware, the ball had been sold at auction in 2006 on behalf of its owner, the aforementioned Jose (pronounced 'Josie') Miller. He had already checked that part of the story.

Over the next few months, however, the nature of the mystery call began to make more sense.  A cutting from The Independent on Sunday newspaper, a copy of a Glamorgan members' newsletter, and another warning, this time delivered to his fellow broadcaster, Peter Walker, pointed towards an unpalatable but unavoidable conclusion.  The ball that had changed hands at Christie's in 2006 -- for an eye-watering £26,400 -- was a fake.

Taken over by a journalist's instinct to expose wrongdoing, Lloyd spent 18 months trying to establish the truth, in particular who knew that the ball that came under the Christie's hammer was an imposter.  No one is nailed conclusively as being party to any kind of deliberate fraud, but there are question marks, certainly, over some of the parties involved.

With a cover that hints at intrigue and melodrama, reminiscent of the style that once might have adorned the latest novel by Agatha Christie, Howzat? The Six Sixes Ball Mystery promises a gripping yarn and delivers, even if ultimately there is no villain, at least not of the kind that Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot would have unveiled.

It is the tale of a quest for truth, however, and given that piecing together the strands of evidence is as essential to a good mystery as the denouement, Lloyd's investigation into what really happened to the real Six Sixes ball is a triumph.

Howzat? The Six Sixes Ball Mystery, by Grahame Lloyd (Celluloid) is available from Amazon , Waterstones and WHSmith.

Also by Grahame Lloyd: Six of the Best: Cricket's Most Famous Over (Kindle edition)



The Masters 1996: How ruthless Faldo hunted down the floundering Shark

The history of the US Masters is a catalogue of great sporting moments. Think of Gary Player's victory from eight shots off the pace going into the final day in 1978, the great Jack Nicklaus charge to win in 1986, Augusta's own Larry Hogan Mize winning a sudden-death play-off in 1987, Tiger Woods announcing himself to the world with a stunning victory by 12 shots in 1997; or, more recently, Bubba Watson's amazing shot out of the trees on to the green at the second extra hole in 2012, setting up an extraordinary win. 

There are many more. But none, perhaps, to match the drama of 1996, the year of what was labelled as one of the greatest chokes in the history of sport, let alone golf, when Greg Norman, The Great White Shark, had a six-shot lead going into the final round, bigger than anyone had enjoyed since the Masters was first contested, yet somehow contrived to let it slip away.

As disaster stalked him through every step, Norman shot a 78 against Nick Faldo's 67, his seemingly impregnable lead turned into a five-shot deficit.  By the time it was all over, a crowd that had expected to witness a joyous victory parade to celebrate Norman's 16-year quest for the right to wear the green jacket instead resembled mourners at a funeral, afraid to look him in the eye as he passed them on the fairway or stepped up on to the green.

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Faldo sank a 15-foot birdie putt at the 18th, which in other circumstances would have been a glorious crowning moment.  But even Faldo, a man with a reputation for cold, ruthless professionalism, a man with troubles of his own as he negotiated an expensive, high-profile divorce, could not detach himself from his opponent's pain.  On retrieving his ball from the cup, he gathered the Shark in a hug and, as if he were an executioner suddenly filled with remorse, apologised for winning.

It is an iconic moment that has revisited in a new book by the golf writer Andy Farrell, who analyses the final round hole by hole in Faldo/Norman: The 1996 Masters - A Duel That Defined an Era.

Norman's emotional turmoil is lived out again as Farrell peers into the psyche of both players, already well established adversaries in a long-standing rivalry.  His portraits of the pair are accompanied by first-hand accounts from the day and the opinons of expert witnesses, exploring every nuance of the unfolding action.

Faldo/Norman: The 1996 Masters - A Duel That Defined an Era (Elliott & Thompson) is available from Amazon, Waterstones and WHSmith.



The invincible AP McCoy - journalist McClean crafts a high-class story of a high-class jockey

It says much about the extraordinary ability that jump jockey AP McCoy brings to his trade that his decision to partner Double Seven in tomorrow's Grand National at Aintree saw the eight-year-old's price with the bookies come down so sharply it seemed he could even be the favourite by the time the horses go to post.

Trained in Ireland by Martin Brassil, who won the National at his first attempt with Numbersixvalverde in 2006, Double Seven could have been backed at 50-1 at the end of January. His odds had shrunk to 25-1 this time last week, but such was the run of money that poured in after 18-times champion jockey McCoy was confirmed as the rider there were some bookmakers offering as little as 12-1 by Thursday evening.

Since he rode his first winner at the age of 17 back in 1992, McCoy has come home in front more than 4,000 times, an unprecedented total.   He became champion National Hunt jockey in 1995-96 and has won the title every year since. With three weeks to go in this year's championship he is 60 winners clear of his nearest rival.

He has a great story to tell and tells it very well, with the help of the noted Irish racing journalist Donn McClean, in an autobiography updated to include his 2010 Grand National win on Don't Push It -- like Double Seven owned by J P McManus -- which broke his duck in the Aintree spectacular at the 15th attempt, and the tragic outcome of the 2012 race when Synchronised, on whom he had won the Cheltenham Gold Cup, parted company with McCoy at Becher's Brook with neither horse nor jockey hurt only to suffer fatal injuries in a subsequent fall after continuing in the race riderless.

Steve Dennis, in a review in the Racing Post, applauded the book because "it deals rewardingly with the man rather than with the career."

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"It helps, of course, that Donn McClean is a superlative writer," he continued. "This book reads as though it has been crafted for craft’s sake rather than dashed together in the face of a Christmas deadline.

"This is no deathless page-turner because we know what happens in the end (McCoy conquers the world, sorry for the spoiler) but the object of the exercise is illustration and in this respect McClean is something of an artist.”

It is the third time that McCoy has told his story, which Malachy Clerkin, writing in the Irish Times, feared was a little excessive, but was pleasantly surprised by the time he had finished McClean's version.

"The only reason he could justify having a third go at it would be if he had something to say about himself that he hadn’t said before," Clerkin wrote. "Thankfully, this is indeed the case. He takes his time in getting there, but by the end of this excellent book we do have some idea of what it is that drives McCoy, of where the madness comes from."

My Autobiography, by AP McCoy (Orion) is available from Amazon, WHSmith and Waterstones.