I was so sad to learn that Barney Curley had died on Sunday. There have already been some excellent articles written about his exploits on the turf and the gambles landed that were stuff of legend. I wanted to write a tribute too, but it’s a personal one from me, about a man I only had the pleasure of meeting once.
I first became aware of Barney Curley when I first discovered betting shops and the joys of losing my cash wages every Friday afternoon. One morning I went into William Hill on Gold Street Tiverton to reading the Sporting Life pinned up on the wall. Glowering out at me from the front page was an unshaven chap sporting a Fedora, the only other face that affected me like that was the first time I saw a photo of 1954 era Elvis. I read the article, it appeared the stewards didn’t go much on this chap called Barney Curley, who was a professional gambler. I loved the sound of that, even though I was handing over my wages in cold blood to the bookies every week, this guy was socking it to them. My instant hero, when the manager wasn’t looking I cut that article out with drawing pins and kept it.
Fast forward to 1986 and a photo taken on my bed while at Army college in Bordon. Grinning away with the Raceform Handicap Book. That article with Barney glowering out is on my wall. All the other guys had Linda Lusardi and Sam Fox, not me, I had Barney Curley, which no doubt put the other lads off their stroke, they already thought this racing mad bloke a bit weird.
The first time I saw Barney in person was at Windsor races. I was still in the Army and had invested the princely sum of £200 to join the MDM racing club. Our horse Tyrnippy was running. I had a score each way at 9/2 with Bill Tye of Victor Chandler on the rails and went to watch the race on TV. I had to do a double take as stood right next to me puffing on a fag, Fedora on head was Barney Curley. Tyrnippy looked like winning then got done by a horse called Eternal Triangle. I’m pretty sure Barney was on. Of course, I didn’t say hello far too cool/nervous, take your pick, for that.
Around the time I left the Army in 1989 I recorded a Channel 4 TV documentary on Barney, I watched it loads of times, lent it to someone and never got it back. I have noticed clips of it on twitter from time to time, I hope it turns up in its entirety at some point. It was a fascinating look into his life, at the races, betting with the same guy I had my score each-way with at Windsor, puffing on his fags and saying that if any of his staff ever spoke about one of his horses they’d find their bags at the door. Great stuff.
I followed Barney’s ups and downs throughout my racing life, though I hardly ever saw him on racecourses when I worked for bookmakers during the 90s and early 2000’s. He certainly didn’t have a bet with any of them.
Fast forward to 2017 and I find myself working for Star Sports and interviewing for Ben’s #BettingPeople series. My dream interviewee would be of course Barney Curley. I asked around and was given an address for him in Newmarket, to which I dispatched a hand written letter and a copy of my self-published book Skint Mob. In the letter I told Barney he’d been my hero since I was around 18, he’s got a mention in the book, (enclosed) and that I’d love to interview him. It was a longshot.
One Sunday morning a few weeks later my mobile rang. When I answered I almost fell off my chair when I heard the unmistakable voice of the man himself. He told me straight away that he wasn’t going to do an interview but he was calling out of courtesy to say thank you for the book which he promised to read. Before hanging up he quipped that if he enjoyed the book, who knows he might change his mind about the interview.
I don’t know what I was doing that was so important on 9th January 2018 but whatever it was I missed a call from Barney. He left a short voicemail. He said he’d just finished the book, which he enjoyed, but was off to Africa for a few months and wished me a happy new year. He enjoyed the book, there was a glimmer!
A few months passed and I called him again, we spoke a few times, I had high hopes that he’d do the interview but ultimately they were dashed when he decided against it. Still, it had been a pleasure talking to him all the same. Once again, the door was slightly ajar as he said if he changed his mind he had my number.
In March 2019 Nick Luck interviewed Barney at length on Luck On Sunday, it was a terrific interview but the stark reality was that I’d missed the boat for #BettingPeople. Fair play to Barney though, he needed maximum exposure for his DAFA work and choosing Nick Luck over me was obviously the right one.
In July of 2019 I’d arranged to interview Charlie Fellowes in Newmarket. I thought I’d chance my arm just once more with Barney. I wrote him another letter saying just in case he’d changed his mind I’d be in his area. I was at my daughter’s school sports day when my phone rang. It was Barney. He started with ‘Simon, I’m calling you to tell you I’m not doing an interview’ my heart sank, but he went on ‘But if you want to come to my house and have a chat I’ll make you a cup of tea’.
So that’s what I did. With an excellent interview with Charlie Fellowes in the can I turned up on Barney’s doorstep on 16th July. True to his word he invited me in and made me a cup of tea. So, there I was, in Barney Curley’s house, talking about racing. The conversation was mainly about bookmakers we both knew, I asked him about his skill with the form book and backing winners and he replied that people had no idea how much hard work he put into it. He mentioned his son dying in a tragic car accident spurred him into his charity work and that was the focus of his life now, Direct Aid for Africa in Zambia. I was probably there around 45 minutes when he said, ‘Well Simon, it was nice to meet you, but I’m a busy man’ and my time was up. I thanked him profusely for agreeing to meet me. He walked me to my car and said his goodbyes, as I was about to leave, he shook my hand and said ‘Simon, usually when someone tries as hard as you have to achieve something they get what they want in the end’. I left feeling absolutely elated that I’d met my hero, enjoyed it and there was still of hope of the interview.
That was the last time I saw or heard from him.
I was heartbroken to hear the news that Barney had died. A man who as I said, I met only once. As he famously once said, ‘The show’s over boys, thank you very much.’ He’s been such a part of all my racing life, it feels like such a loss.
He’s a massive loss for racing too, the sport needs colourful characters like Barney. It’s not just racing that will be mourning, he touched so many more lives. One of his friends told me ‘He’s left a lot of lights shining all over the world, not one percent of what he did for people who genuinely deserved it would be known publicly. Some man.’ He concluded with a quote Barney used a lot regarding his charity his work in Zambia.
‘Better to keep a small light alive than curse against the darkness.’
RIP Barney Curley.