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Barney Curley, betting mastermind and charity pioneer, dies aged 81

The Guardian logo The Guardian 23/05/2021 Greg Wood

Barney Curley, the architect of several of the turf’s greatest betting coups and the founder of a charity that transformed the lives of thousands of children in Africa, died on Sunday at the age of 81.

In an extraordinary life both on and off the turf, Curley won millions of pounds from the bookies over many decades and raised millions more to fund his work in Zambia with the charity Direct Aid For Africa (Dafa), which he set up following the death of his 18-year-old son, Charlie, in 1995.

Curley always considered himself fortunate to have survived a severe case of tuberculosis as a teenager, which confined him to a bed in a sanatorium for nine months. Having planned to train for the priesthood at a Jesuit seminary, he chose instead to pursue a career as a trainer and gambler, and landed his first – and still perhaps his most famous – coup at Bellewstown in June 1975, when a horse called Yellow Sam won in a canter at 20-1.

Related: Joe Mercer obituary

Curley had arranged for an extensive network of contacts to place starting-price bets on Yellow Sam at off-course betting shops. Had the money been “blown back” to the track, Yellow Sam would have started at odds-on, but Curley had chosen the venue for the coup with great care. Bellewstown’s only link to the outside world was a single telephone box, and the trainer arranged for an accomplice to occupy the line, claiming that he needed to contact an ailing aunt, until the race was underway.

The Yellow Sam gamble alone would have secured Curley’s place in racing folklore but he remained a nagging – if increasingly occasional – thorn in the bookies’ side for nearly 50 years. He landed another brilliantly executed coup in May 2010 when three winners from four horses netted a payout of around £4m, though only after a prolonged struggle through the courts in Gibraltar as BetFred tried to avoid paying out. Had the fourth horse also won – and Curley said later that he fancied that one most of all – the return could have approached £20m.

A later tilt at the bookies in January 2014 yielded another payout of around £2m but from 1996 Curley’s energies had increasingly been directed towards Dafa. While mourning the loss of his son in a car accident, friends from his time at the seminary made him aware of the devastation being caused by Aids in Africa. He subsequently devoted much of his life to building and maintaining schools and hospitals in Zambia.

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