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Yellow Sam betting coup

File:Bellewstown Race Course (Geograph).jpg
Bellewstown Race Course, where the coup took place.

The Yellow Sam betting coup was a successful sports betting scam, infamous within Irish and British thoroughbred horse racing.

It happened at Bellewstown on 26 June 1975, and was orchestrated by Barney Curley, a Northern Irish professional gambler and entrepreneur. By taking advantage of an under-handicapped horse and the lack of easy communications between the Bellewstown racing course and off-course bookmakers, Curley made a profit of over IR£300,000 (>€1.7m adjusted for inflation) - one of the largest betting coups in Irish history.[1][2]

The coup

Yellow Sam was a "slow but steady" horse bought by Curley and was given his name from his father's nickname at the races. Curley instructed the horse's trainer, Liam Brennan, to train Yellow Sam specifically for the somewhat obscure annual National Hunt race at Bellewstown, featuring mostly amateur jockeys. To ensure that the horse would run at least once with a much lighter handicap than would normally be the case, Curley first ran the horse in a series of races on other tracks in unfavourable conditions.[3]

Curley spent weeks developing the plan and putting people in place. On the day of the race, Yellow Sam's starting price was 20-1, but if large sums of money were being placed on the horse, that figure would drop quickly, drastically reducing the coup's potential take. It was for this reason that Yellow Sam was to race at Bellewstown specifically, as the track was serviced by just one public telephone and had no private lines at all – making it uniquely possible to disrupt communications to the course bookies who determined the starting prices for the participants.[3][4][5]

Dozens of Curley's friends, acquaintances, and paid accomplices stood in bookkeepers across the country with between £50 and £300 and sealed instructions to be opened upon receiving a call. None of the accomplices knew beforehand which horse had been prepared, or in which race it was to run. Curley called six or seven of his people at 2.50pm, ten minutes before the race was to start, and instructed them to each call ten to twenty others. In all, Curley invested just over £15,000, his entire savings, in the gamble. Twenty-five minutes before the race was about to start, and fifteen minutes before the bets were to be placed, Benny O'Hanlon, a friend of Curley's in on the plot, walked into the telephone booth and pretended to place a call to a dying aunt in a non-existent hospital. His act was convincing, as the queue behind him waiting to use the telephone sympathetically allowed him to continue talking for half an hour, while off-course bookies desperately trying to lay off their liabilities struggled in vain to contact their counterparts on the course.[3][5]

Curley had already built up something of a reputation during his years as a professional gambler, and knew that his presence at the course was likely to cause concern amongst the bookies, and possibly give away the scam before the off. Still, with so much at stake he wanted to see the race first-hand, so he crept into the centre of the course and watched the race concealed in a thicket of gorse. The gamble succeeded, with Yellow Sam winning the 13-hurdle race by two and a half lengths.[3] Since nothing about the coup had been illegal, the bookkeepers were forced to pay out the full IR£300,000 (>€1.7m adjusted for inflation). They did, however, pay out the winnings in single notes, filling 108 bags.[2][5]


The coup made Barney Curley infamous throughout Ireland and the United Kingdom, and made headlines in many Irish and British national newspapers and television reports. To this day, it continues to be listed as one of the greatest betting scams of all time.[4] Curley invested his earnings in a stable of horses which he continued to have trained for specific gambles, and in the purchase of Middleton Park House, a mansion in Mullingar, County Westmeath – for which he later ran a raffle of dubious legality, earning him over £1m.[3]

Irish bookkeepers amended their rulebook following the coup to require that bets of over £100 be placed at least half an hour before the start of the race. Bellewstown Race Course itself played up the coup in later years, and in 2005 ran the "Seamus Murphy Yellow Sam 30th Anniversary Hurdle", inviting Barney Curley and Liam Brennan to observe the celebrations.[6]

Yellow Sam continued to run in other races, and in his autobiography, Curley reported having earned a further £700,000 in bets on the horse before it was retired.[3]


  1. Bellewstown Races website - History. Accessed 22 September 2007.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Hyland, F (2006); Taken For A Ride: Betting Coups And Scandal, Gill & Macmillan (ISBN 978-07-1-714016-9).
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 Curley, B; Townsend, N (1998); Giving a little back: An Autobiography, HarperCollins (ISBN 978-00-0-218827-2).
  4. 4.0 4.1 Sim, A (March 21, 2004); The top 10 sporting gambles, The Times. URL last accessed 21 September 2007.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Wood, G (24 April 2004); "Curley finally finds his vocation", The Guardian. (Available online at Buzzle.com. URL last accessed 21 September 2007).
  6. McClean, D (9 July 2005); "Beating the odds at Bellewstown", Irish Farmers Journal. Retrieved 21 September 2007.


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