'The Fireman' one of the big punters of his time
EDDIE "The Fireman” Birchley was one of the most colourful characters of his time.
One of Australia's early big time punters, his name still echoes in thoroughbred circles whenever talk turns to the past and ears prick for a good racing story.
As Tweed local Barry Clugston - who knew "The Fireman” for more than 50 years - said, he "would have loved” one last run in the pages of the press, for the limelight as much as to let people know he died on July 25. He was 86.
In the great Australian tradition, Birchley was known as "The Fireman” because before turning to punting he had been with the fire department for 17 years.
"I was a boxer in my youth,” he told a journalist in November 1974, following a "hit-and-run” dash from the Tweed to Rosehill for the Saturday races, where he pocketed a cool $24,200 from an outlay of $51,950, after putting the $51,950 on Debbie Jo (5-2 on) in the First Marsden Park Handicap.
"But these days I work out in the gymnasium at the Greenmount Life Saving Club. Every day I swim from Greenmount to Kirra with the local beach inspector.”
Birchley's daughter, Leigh, said he was always a gambler and in his teens was running a book on the Brisbane wrestling scene.
Later, he was an SP bookmaker in Brisbane, before finding a system of gambling that prompted a major shake up of the industry north of the border.
"He worked out how with a small field he could inevitably win money and Queensland TAB actually changed the rules to make it more difficult to win,” Leigh said.
"They saw it was happening and changed the rules.
"In the end, Brisbane bookmakers wouldn't take him for enough money so he'd fly to Melbourne or Sydney for a particular race and might chuck $100,000 on, which was a lot of money in the '70s.”
The Birchley legend is one of those stories that grows a little longer and a little better each time its told.
His first major win came from investing in a risky property venture in Queensland that eventually paved the way for him to retire from firefighting and turn his efforts to horses and form guides.
Word was he plunged the profits from that venture - $40,000 - on a sprinter by the name Tod Maid (his daughter confirmed this) in what was his first big bet, and the horse took the post.
"I am not classified as a professional punter, it is merely a hobby,” he told the media in '74, before saying he had started betting just 20 years earlier, becoming a big punter after about seven years.
The week before his November '74 Rosehill trip, at which he took on bookmakers such as Bill Waterhouse and Les Tidmarsh, he was said to have visited Warwick Farm to put $60,000 on St Louis Blue. It won.
Before that, it was claimed he invested $200,000 on a horse named Caboul, which finished an easy 6-1 on winner at Flemington.
He told a reporter he never got nervous before making big bets.
"(But) I am feeling nervous for the first time today,” he said. This publicity is bad for me. It will probably chase me out of racing.”
In the end, whether he jumped or was chased, Birchley did walk from the big time punt and racing. He claimed bookies and some jockeys had conspired to have the horses he bet get beaten. No evidence was offered.
Clugston said he still fluttered, but never the sort of massive plunges for which he was famous.
"I think he enjoyed the thrill and banter of risk taking,” his daughter said.
"Later, when he was in the (aged care) home the nurses rang me and said 'we've just got to tell you, we've found $14,000 in the seat of your father's (walking) frame'.
"He'd been going down the club and betting on the football. He was still winning money, even as an old codger in the nursing home, he couldn't help himself.”
One thing that couldn't be argued was the mark Birchley left. He is mentioned in books, both racing and non-racing, including Mark Brandon "Chopper” Read's, Chopper Unchopped.
"It happened one day at Moonee Valley,” Chopper wrote.
"Me, Dave the Jew and Vincent Villeroy stood and watched Eddie "The Fireman” Birchley stick 50 thousand bucks on one horse - and win... Dave the Jew wanted to kill Eddie Birchley, but me and Vincent wouldn't allow it. Call us sentimental fools, if you like, but "The Fireman” was part of racing history... It was a privilege just to watch him in action. His ilk are all gone now.”
Birchley's saw out his time at the Opal Florence Tower specialist aged care home in Tweed Heads.
Clugston said as the years caught up with him, Birchley would ride his scooter to Jack Evans Boat Harbour to swim.
His daughter said the home called her about that too, saying he'd been swimming in the Tweed River and they worried he might be washed out to sea.
His family plan a private funeral where they will release his ashes in the sea.
He is survived by his three children and two grandchildren.