Wednesday 25 December 2019

My Coup Runneth Over

Courtesy of the excellent Guardian newspaper last week comes this article which contains some great stories of betting coups.

The 'hole in one gang' story was covered here in 2010, along with a couple of other memorable tales from the early days of sports betting. 

1) The Yellow Sam coup (1975)

In perhaps the most famous betting coup in British or Irish horse racing history, the Irish former band manager and trainee Jesuit priest-turned gambler, racehorse owner and philanthropist Barney Curley, entered a horse named Yellow Sam in a National Hunt race at the small provincial track of Bellewstown in Ireland.

His reasons for targeting that particular course were quite deliberate: at a time long before the advent of mobile phones and email, it was serviced by only one telephone, a public call box. In order to ensure his horse went off at generous odds, he had previously run it in a series of races in conditions that could best be described as “unfavourable” (translation: over distances or going he knew the horse would not particularly like).

On race day, an army of Curley’s runners were dispatched to a wide variety of bookmakers with sums of money ranging in size from £50 to £300 which were wagered on the horse in the 10 minutes prior to the beginning of Yellow Sam’s race. As the money piled in, just over £15,000 in total, various bookies began to panic and attempted to contact their representatives at Bellewstown to get them to bet on Yellow Sam. By doing so, his starting price would be slashed and their liabilities would be hugely reduced. Unfortunately, their efforts at self preservation were scuppered when it became apparent that the telephone at Bellewstown was, at the time, being hogged by a particularly distraught racegoer who was having one final conversation with an aunt who was dying in hospital.

The grieving nephew in question was Benny O’Hanlon, a friend of Curley’s and his dying aunt was a figment of his imagination, unbeknownst to the betting agents standing in the queue waiting to use the phone he kept tied up until Yellow Sam had won his race by two-and-half lengths at the ridiculously generous odds of 20-1.

Curley’s profits on the race amounted to £300,000, which adjusted to current inflation rates amounts to about £1.4m. He used the windfall to buy stables and set up as a racehorse trainer and has proved a constant scourge of bookmakers ever since. His most recent of several big money coups was pulled off earlier this year, when he arranged for four horses from three different stables to win on the same afternoon in January and caned the bookies for a reported £2m.

2) The hole in one gang (1991)

Having conducted research into the probability of a hole in one being scored in a professional golf tournament was no more than even money, Paul Simmons and John Carter, two Essex men with backgrounds in the bookmaking industry toured the UK and Ireland looking for independent betting offices who would give them odds on a hole in one being scored at five different tournaments: the British Open, the Benson & Hedges, the Volvo PGA, the US Open and the European Open. They were able to get 100-1 on it happening at all five events in a wager that should have been priced at nearer 30-1 and placed a series of doubles, trebles and accumulators at similarly inflated prices.

Remarkably, at least one hole was aced in all five tournaments, with cigar-smoking Spanish bon viveur Miguel Angel JimĂ©nez bringing home the majority of the bacon for our intrepid duo by finding the cup with his drive during the European Open at Walton Heath in Surrey. Simmons and Carter won over £500,000, not counting the winnings they failed to collect from 12 different bookies who refused to pay out on the grounds they had been bankrupted by the pair or else failed to renew their licences for other mysterious reasons.

3) Fred Craggs: 50p millionaire (2008)

Started in fine style by a racehorse called Isn’t That Lucky and brought home by one named A Dream Come True, a 50p eight-horse accumulator placed by the agricultural agent Fred Craggs in the Thirsk branch of William Hill in north Yorkshire on the eve of his 60th birthday had the distinction of making him the United Kingdom’s first betting shop millionaire. All eight horses came in at combined odds of over 2,000,000-1, leaving Craggs to rue the 10p he’d wasted on the bet, as the William Hill small-print meant his winnings were capped at £1m instead of the £1.4m he should have got. “I lost 10p on this one because I only needed 40p to get the limit up,” he mused, upon being presented with his giant cardboard novelty cheque for a million quid. “That was an extravagance.”

In truth, another rule in the William Hill small print meant the firm could have capped Craggs’s winnings at £100,000 if they’d so desired, as some of the horses he’d bet on had been participating in races overseas. The company’s spokesman Graeme Sharpe said that further reducing the pay-out would have been “churlish”, but made no mention of the potential PR disaster such a mean stunt would have caused his employers.

Having placed his bet on a Friday afternoon, the regular small stakes punter and student of the form did not find out about his astonishing win until the following day, his birthday. Having called into a different branch of William Hill, in nearby Bedale, a member of staff asked if he had any betting slips that needed to be checked and he remembered his all or nothing Hail Mary punt from the previous day. “I had a nice warm glow in the shop but none of the other customers seemed to notice,” he said, before going home to dine with his family, who were not informed of his win until the following day.

“I did not tell anyone about it at first but I had to come clean to everybody on Sunday,” he said. “I was not going to get all demonstrative – I was not going to go jumping about and shouting. It is just going to make life a bit more comfortable. I will put a lump on a pension, some on the family and if there is any left, I will use it to make that little bit of difference.” Hailing Craggs’s achievement, Sharpe described his bet as “the most amazing bet ever placed since betting shops were made legal in 1961”. To mangle that old Yorkshire adage: where there’s luck there’s brass.

4) The 6,479-1 novelty bet (1989)

While the name may suggest it is less serious than “serious” betting on sports events, the discipline of novelty betting can be a lucrative source of income for bookmakers or, less frequently, their customers. In their ongoing efforts to part as many punters as possible from their money, bookies will offer odds on the weather, religion, politics, reality shows, TV talent contests, the Christmas No1 and pretty much anything else you care to mention. While the stakes they accept on such bets tend to be limited, the potential for reward for society’s more prescient can be huge.

In 1963, William Hill bookmakers accepted a £100 bet at 100-1 odds from a customer named David Threlfall, who wagered that a man would walk on the moon before the end of the decade. Threlfall trousered his £10,000 in winnings with fewer than six months to spare, only for his good fortune to evaporate when he was killed in a crash in a sports car he’d bought with some of his winnings.

Threlfall’s winnings were small beer in comparison to those of an unnamed, 40-year-old rune reader with his finger pressed firmly against the cultural pulse, who placed a £30 accumulator in his local bookies in Newport, South Wales on 30 December 1989. The customer bet on a series of happenings before the turn of the century. Cliff Richard had to be knighted (4-1), the rock band U2 had to be a going concern (3-1), as had the BBC soap opera EastEnders (5-1), while its Australian counterparts Neighbours (5-1) and Home and Away (8-1) needed to still be on British screens.

All five events, such as they are, duly came to pass and a couple of days into the new millennium our intrepid mystic marched up to the pay-out hatch to collect the sum of £194,400 his 6,479-1 acca had netted him. As nobody had passed his slip on to head office when he placed it, it took a couple of days for the bet to be confirmed as a legitimate one and our hero was duly paid what remains the record amount for the biggest novelty bet win in the history of the bookmaking industry.

5) D Four Dave wins at Kilbeggan (2010)

In June 2010, a horse named D Four Dave romped home in a low key handicap hurdle race at an evening meeting at the small course of Kilbeggan in the Irish midlands. It was sent off at odds of 5-1, having been available at 14-1 earlier that day, in a state of affairs that suggested somebody had fancied it to win in a big way.

It quickly emerged that the horse had been the subject of an enormous gamble orchestrated by one of its part-owners, Douglas Taylor, the managing director of a recruitment company named MCR, with the help of 200 unwitting assistants, who were paid €30 each to place the sum of €200 on the nag by following specific instructions they were given in a letter along with the cash. To help maximise the secrecy of the sting, most of those employed were foreign nationals, many of whom had a very poor grasp of English.

Having received an envelope containing a watch with an alarm set for 6.55pm (five minutes before the horse was due to run) and their betting stake and instructions, they were driven to 200 different betting shops around Dublin and Kildare. The instructions were as follows.

“Dear Employee, enclosed you will find:

A completed betting slip for the betting shop that you have been sent to. €200 in cash for which you need to place the bet.

You should also have a watch with an alarm set to go off at 6.55pm. Your job is to place the bet exactly when the alarm goes off at 6.55pm. You need to be at the counter before the alarm goes off to be in position to hand over the betting slip and say to the person at the counter ‘I will take the price’.

When the person hands you back the betting slip you will pay over the €200. You then have to place the betting slip back into your envelope and return the slip immediately to your supervisor/driver along with the watch when he comes to pick you up. You can then return with your driver/supervisor to MCR office to get paid. Thank you.”

By having all their bets placed simultaneously to avoid arousing the suspicions of the shops they targeted and minimise the chances of shop staff getting through to head office to get the all-clear to take the bet, D Four Dave’s connections had hoped to land over €200,000 in the event of their horse prevailing what his trainer had reckoned to be “a bad race” that wouldn’t take much winning. But while their four-legged runner kept up his end of the bargain on the race track, not all of their two-legged ones proved as reliable in the betting shops and the clever coup landed those behind it considerably less than the hoped for sum.

“It is understood that some of them could not read the note they had been given, while others tried to place the bet after the race had concluded and the horse had sauntered home by seven lengths,” noted the Racing Post, although Sharon Byrne, the chair of the Irish Bookmakers Association, said many firms had taken a big financial blow.

“The whole of Dublin and most of Kildare were hit,” she confirmed. “Some of those recruited had really bad English and couldn’t even read what they were given. The staff could see two watches on most of their wrists and were aware that something unusual was happening. Some of the bookmakers’ staff got to keep the note that the runners had been given, although some of those recruited got a little aggressive and insisted they get the note back.”

With the Irish bookie Paddy Power reporting losses of up to €50,000 in the sting and their fellow bookies Boylesports claiming to have lost “a five-figure sum”, it seems clear that the majority of those recruited to place the bets managed to follow their instructions. “It was a really well-executed gamble,” said Boylesport spokesman Leon Blanche. “It was a really good punt landed.”

The coup’s instigator, meanwhile, insisted he’d pulled it off just to see if he could and was philosophical that it wasn’t as successful as it might have been. “It didn’t quite go to plan, some people didn’t make the journey and others got the instructions mixed up,” said Taylor. “It was just for fun and not for the money though.”

6) Slippery characters at Sheffield greyhound track (1996)

It’s the betting coup that got away. Or didn’t get away, as the case may be. Five of the six animals involved certainly weren’t meant to get away, as anyone who has ever witnessed the comical sight of a startled dog attempt to break into a sprint on a well polished floor can attest.

There are numerous ways of nobbling a greyhound before a race, from the traditional method of doping to the less sinister ploy of filling them up with food in order to ensure they run sluggishly.

At Sheffield greyhound track in January 1996, some industrious ne’er-do-wells attempted a far more ingenious scam, by reflooring five of the six starting traps to be used for that particular evening’s racing with shiny new rectangles of Formica laminate. Clearly aware of the huge advantage handed to any greyhound that gets a fast start in greyhound racing, our villains left trap No2 untouched, banking on any dog sporting the blue jacket getting off to a flier in hot pursuit of the hare once the stalls opened, while its rivals would be left scrabbling helplessly like Bambi on ice.

Sadly for the unidentified cheats, stadium staff discovered their handiwork before the commencement of the evening’s racing, the Formica was removed and racing commenced as usual. In the first two races, the dogs in trap No2 both went off as favourites, in a state of affairs that suggested somebody somewhere had put a decent amount of money on them. Neither won. By the third race, there was little or no financial interest in the occupant of the blue box, which means the slippery characters behind the stunt knew they had been rumbled and promptly cut their losses.

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