Even with the innocence of youth, it didn’t take Curley Jnr long to discover how crooked greyhound racing was in those immediate post-war years. His father, he concedes, was one of the worst offenders, although he stresses: ‘It never occurred to him that it was morally wrong. As far as my father was concerned, he fed, watered and trained the dogs and he was entitled to run them how he wanted.’ Curley adds: ‘He used to stop them regularly at that time. There were no dope tests then and he gave them tablets which didn’t appear to do any permanent harm, but slowed them by a second, which was worth several lengths. That was comfortably enough to get them beaten.’ They would be downgraded and then win when the money was down.
Curley recalls a particular occasion when one of his father’s dogs, called The Fag, lost at Belfast’s Celtic Park when odds on favourite. The crowd responded to this obvious cheating with a rhythmic stamping of feet and a chorus of ‘out, out, out’, rather like a football crowd whose team are 5–0 down. His father faced the management’s wrath, and was told: ‘As long as your name is what it is, you will never run a dog here again.’ Celtic Park was a prestige track, and it was a grave dishonour to be warned off it. Charlie Curley never went back.
His son, however, would return in the seventies, with a greyhound named Portumna Wonder, which won the Ulster Sprint at the track. ‘The prize money can’t have been more than £500, but I backed it heavily ante-post and won something like £5,000,’ he recalls. The event was sponsored by bookmaker Sean Graham, with whom Curley was to develop a long, if not always harmonious, relationship.
In Curley’s teens, his father began to embroil him in his chicanery. ‘Once, when I was about 14 and on holiday from college, he sent me with one of his greyhounds to the Lifford greyhound track, a mile or two the other side of the River Foyle from Strabane. I was driven by Ernest McCaffrey, a taxi driver, who regularly took his dogs and knew the score.
‘Just before we set off, my father, who was off to Belfast with another dog, handed me a little ball of mincemeat. “Now,” he instructed me firmly, “when you get to Strabane, give this to the dog.” I didn’t need telling that there was a tablet in the meat.
‘Irvinestown to Lifford is a fair ride, and on the way I got thinking to myself. My analysis of the situation was this. “If I don’t give the dog the meat, he’ll almost definitely win – and probably at a good price.” I was already calculating my winnings.
‘The taxi-driver was keeping a close eye on me in his rear-view mirror. He knew the instructions, too. When we got to Strabane, I just motioned with my hand and pretended to give my canine travelling companion the meat. If Ernest had been looking, my sleight of hand was enough to deceive him.
‘I had £2 on the dog at 6–1 and he duly left his rivals trailing and I won £12. Both my father and I arrived back about midnight and he demanded to know how we’d got on. “We won,” I said.
‘My father looked flabbergasted. “He couldn’t have won,” he declared defiantly; he obviously had a big betting scheme planned for the dog. “Oh yes. Five or six lengths,” I shrugged, trying to conceal my guilt.
‘He thought about it for a moment. Now, these tablets had been supplied, perhaps unwittingly, by Gerry Magee, the local chemist. He was used to people taking their problems to him. But not the one he was confronted with that night. And not at that hour.
‘Suddenly my father sprang up from his chair and exclaimed, “The fool’s given me the wrong pills.” He was inclined to be very hot-tempered at times. He strode down the street and I followed at a discreet distance.
‘Despite the late hour, he started to rap on the chemist’s door. Eventually someone stuck their head out of the window and there was a right commotion, with my father accusing him of being stupid. All I could do was just watch and keep out of it and feel slightly ashamed. Eventually it blew over. I never let on to him either, even when I got older.
‘I felt pretty pleased with myself. Going back to school £12 the richer was like having hundreds in your back pocket today.’