This is the story of a famous Irish trainer, of an English stockbroker who fancied himself as a trainer, of a businessman from Cork with a suitcase full of money, and of their attempt to pull off the greatest betting coup of all time.
It involved two horses, both chestnut; not identical, but similar enough. And it all happened at a racecourse that looks like a fairground.
A year of painstaking preparation went in to two minutes of frantic effort at Cartmel racecourse, in England, on the August bank holiday weekend of 1974.
A horse called Gay Future carried the hopes of a colourful cast of characters, known affectionately as the ‘Cork Mafia,’ who had placed bets in betting offices all over London. They chose the busiest race day of the year with 10 race meetings taking place throughout the U.K. They picked Cartmel, a small Cumbrian track with no ‘blower’ – no connection between the bookies on-course and their colleagues in betting offices throughout the nation. And they pulled it off. Almost.
We talk to Edward O’Grady’s former Head Lad, Tim Finn, who wore a wig and sunglasses on that rainy day to disguise himself, and who covered the horse in soap flakes to make it appear unsettled in the parade ring.
My father was coming out of Mass one day and a fella said to
him “What do you think of your criminal son?” Poor man
nearly died. He didn’t know anything about it!
Ginger and Beryl McCain, responsible for Grand National hero Red Rum’s victories, trained the favourite in the race who was beaten by Gay Future.
“I remember when the jockey came past the winning post
he stuck his hand up in the air, and looked like he’d won
a Grand National. Little did we know he more or less had!”
The horse flew home, winning by 10 lengths at odds of 10/1. The Cork Mafia stood to win the equivalent today of around five million pounds. A cartel of bookmakers in the UK smelled a rat and refused to pay out, pending an enquiry. It should have been handled by the Jockey Club, but it ended up in court. Trainer O’Grady and businessman Murphy were arrested in Cheltenham and appeared in Preston Crown Court. Cartmel Racecourse owner, Lord Cavendish, has his own theory about it.
“I think the bookies have always had a control of racing
and I think one of the reasons that isn’t always stated is that
some members of the Jockey Club owe them quite a lot of money…”
The judge, Justice Caulfield, was a racing man who ruthlessly cut through the prosecution case. He was struck by the irony of the bookies’ objection to the Gay Future team who, they complained, conspired to keep the odds high. He continually interrupted the prosecuting barrister with exchanges such as this:
If you go to Cartmel and place a bet for £1,000, and the price
is 10/1 on the board, you are not expecting the bookie to smile and leave his board at 10/1 ?
My Lord, he would have his duster out in a flash.
It would be all over England in seconds, whether it had a blower
In his summing up, the judge virtually ordered the jury to acquit, but these were difficult times. The IRA bombing campaign was at its height and there was a lot of anti-Irish feeling. Much to Caulfields’ annoyance, the jury returned a ‘guilty’ verdict. The penalty he imposed was minimal.
Niall Tobin was interviewed by Scannal about the betting coup surrounding a horse called ‘Gay Future’. Tobin knew the man who was the brains behind the coup, a builder from Cork called Tony Murphy. Murphy was one of Tobin’s brother’s best friends when they were growing up.
By a curious twist of fate, Tobin was to play the part of Tony Murphy in a film made about the coup in the 1980s. The film, called ‘Murphy’s Stroke, was also to star Pierce Brosnan in his first ever feature film. He played the part of Irish racehorse trainer Edward O’Grady.
Please find below quotations translated from interview (in Irish) with Niall Tobin.
“Well (Tony Murphy) had no Rolls Royce when I knew him! But they weren’t poor – this wasn’t a Rags to Riches tale at all – they were well off. They had a sandpit and they sold gravel and sand and the likes. I knew him very well when I was a young lad because himself and my young brother were very close, and they played cards together and they used to organise poker schools together, and pontoon schools – pontoon was the game they would play most often, and they used to… well, they basically fleeced the neighbours!”
“The most interesting thing about the court case was the verdict, because it was clear that the judge thought that they were innocent and that they hadn’t done anything wrong, yet the jury found them guilty, and a lot of people thought, and I would hold the same opinion myself, that it was an anti-Irish feeling which was at the root of the verdict… and that they had made up their minds that the Paddies would have to pay for this.”
When the film was shown on television, Tobin enjoyed a certain notoriety for the part he had played.
“When the bookies would see me coming (they’d say:) “Oh here he comes, oh God, oh no, scrub the boards – Murphy’s coming!” and well, I enjoyed that too.”
The legacy of Gay Future remains with us today; people look back fondly on it. Punters at this year’s bank holiday meeting at Cartmel were unanimous in their feelings.
“You admired them. Jesus, we all dream about bringing off a
coup. I’ve been racing all my life and never brought off a coup
yet – but that’s the dream!”