The turf

The coup that nearly cost the bookies £10 million

20 February 2021

9:00 AM

20 February 2021

9:00 AM

Since coup conspirators nearly won £10 million from the bookies, the sport has divided into two camps. Some grinned and wished good luck to the schemers in their efforts to worst the Old Enemy; others insisted with sober faces that it was a scandal which besmirched racing and diddled honest punters who weren’t in the know.

With most racing eyes firmly fixed on the Dublin Racing Festival on 7 February, bookmakers became aware overnight of potentially huge liabilities on three horses in obscure races, each saddled by a different trainer, who had been linked together at long prices in multiple trebles and doubles. Their panic grew as first Fire Away, trained by Laura Morgan, won the 1.25 Class 4 novice chase at Musselburgh by 19 lengths. Backed originally at 25-1, Fire Away started at even money (1-1). Then, in Southwell’s 2.35, Blowing Dixie, trained by Iain Jardine, won a Class 6 Handicap over 1m 4f. Eighth of nine in his previous appearance, he started odds-on at 4-6, having opened at 9-1. All eyes were then on the third horse, Gallahers Cross, trained by Daragh Bourke. He started at 4-5 in the final race at Musselburgh, a Class 4 handicap hurdle, having opened at 33-1.

The bookies were admitting that the plotters had got in under their odds-compilers’ radar. To their credit, the likes of Betvictor’s Chris Poole praised the plotters’ precision planning and said they would pay up if the third leg was landed. Fortunately for the turf accountant trade, Gallahers Cross finished only fourth and the tear-jerking spectacle of a multitude of bookies queuing for push bikes at Halfords having traded in their Mercs was averted.

No mastermind has emerged. The three horses had different owners. The only links established are that Iain Jardine and Daragh Bourke train within 30 miles of each other in the Scottish borders and that Laura Morgan had just bought Fire Away from Bourke. Recent form of all three horses was poor — hence the long prices — but Blowing Dixie had won four times at Southwell, Gallahers Cross, once sold for £260,000, had shown passable form for champion trainer Nicky Henderson back in 2017–18, and he and Fire Away were on low–handicap marks. Although questions now arise about how fully the horses ran on their merits on their previous outings, nobody broke any laws. It was a classic coup and no better compliment could have been paid to its perpetrators than that people began searching for a link to former Newmarket trainer Barney Curley.

Curley was the coup-master supreme, his most famous touch coming with Yellow Sam in Ireland in 1975. He had a well–handicapped but improving horse, dropped him in class and waited for ground that suited. Then, at rural Bellewstown, they struck. With Yellow Sam at 20-1, Curley had men primed shortly before the off to place bets at 150 betting shops across Ireland. With no mobile phones then to ensure that bookmakers did not phone through bets to the course to reduce the price, he had a burly associate occupy the only telephone box on the course for half an hour before the race, supposedly talking to a hospital where his aunt was on her deathbed. To the surprise of his amateur jockey, Yellow Sam won and Barney collected more than £300,000 (more than £1.5 million today) for the £15,300 he laid out. It was one of many strokes he pulled over the years and small punters were with him all the way. When even the suspicion of a Curley coup appeared, others piled in to follow the former would-be Jesuit priest who probably had more bookmakers accounts closed than anyone in history.

Others have followed on a smaller scale, notably crafty old Albert Davison who never let jockeys into his yard and who, when he had a decent betting prospect ready, used to send his stable lads into the woods saying his cows had escaped so that the animal’s final work could be conducted in secret. To the authorities he was a dodgy figure bad for racing’s image; the betting public largely admired the skill with which Davison could nurse broken-down horses back to health and know when they were fit enough to strike.

Some pundits argue the latest attempted coup will damage the sport, saying that it will deter the public from going racing if some people know more about a horse’s chances than the general public. Phooey. Owners, trainers and stable staff know more anyway than the general public. Are punters getting a fair deal that truly reflects a horse’s chances when bookmakers pile money on to the course deliberately to bring down a horse’s starting price? Guessing when a horse is fully primed is part of the game; its raffish outer ring is part of racing’s appeal. My only worry, had the plotters won £10 million, would have been the chunk lost out of the levy paid by bookies to sustain the sport, since that is calculated on their profits and not, as it should be, on their turnover.

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