Eddie “The Fireman” Birchley – Fireman, Investor & Professional Gambler
The myth of Eddie “The Fireman” Birchley’s transition from Fireman to one of the largest punter’s in Australian Racing history is a captivating one, full of controversy, intrigue and perhaps an exaggeration or two.
From his early days growing up in what would ultimately become the international tourist attraction Gold Coast, Eddie Birchley always had a love of gambling, with stories of him running books on the local Brisbane wrestling scene in his teenage years.
From there he was to enter the Queensland Fire Department, where for almost two decades he served as a professional fireman.
A keen fitness advocate, even until his later days Eddie Birchley boasted of daily work outs at the Greenmount Life Saving Club Gymnasium, and a daily regime of swimming from Greenmount to Kirra, a 1.25km swim. Birchley also tried his hand at a short semi-professional boxing career.
Courtesy of some astute investment in high risk stocks in the beachfront property market on the rapidly developing Gold Coast property market, Eddie Birchley made his first small fortune, paving his way for his retirement from the Fire Department and his transition into a full-time professional gambler.
The $40,000 windfall from that venture was used in 1974 to orchestrate a plunge on a sprinter by the name of Tod Maid. While Eddie Birchley later admitted he had always had an interest in wagering and horse racing, this was his first big bet. The filly duly saluted and the legend of “The Fireman” was born.
Too Big For Queensland
A man who was fastidious about his work outs, Birchley applied a similar mentality in his approach to gambling. His dedication and patience as he studied race markets saw him begin to apply a betting system of waiting for what he perceived to be sure things in small fields. The shorter the price the better, Birchley would say, with the feeling of surety that a good thing provides.
He used to state that a 3 to 1 on favourite is still value if the correct price is 100 to 1 on.
His discipline paid dividends to the point where, after his first period of success, Racing Queensland stewards and the Queensland TAB changed the betting rules on such races. Once Queensland bookmakers started to refused to field bets to what he perceived as a satisfactory size, Birchley thought it time to look south and turned his eye to the Bookmaker Rings of the southern states.
Sydney Betting Expeditions
In November 1974 Eddie Birchley pulled off what he called a “hit and run” mission from Queensland to Sydney. Arriving on a Saturday morning he made his way to Rosehill Racecourse. Birchley proceeded to plonk $51,950 on Debbie Jo at odds of 5 to 2 on, or $1.40 in the current marketplace, pocketing $24,200 for his efforts.
This was on the back of a trip to Warwick Farm the week before, where he tangled with prominent bookmaking figures such as Bill Waterhouse and Les Tidmarsh, successfully backing sprinter St Louis Blue to the tune of $60,000.
First hand accounts of Birchley in the betting ring were that of a man of confidence, wearing a suit with extra pockets sewn in to hold his cash. He would insist on being paid as soon as correct weight was semaphored, often refusing requests from Bookies to settle winning bets at venues such as the Tattersalls Club in Sydney at the conclusion of race day.
A Plunge at Flemington
1975 saw Eddie Birchley begin to make waves in Melbourne racing circles. He had ventured to what many consider the home of racing, Flemington, to back Lord Dudley. The stylish chestnut colt was to start favourite in the 1400m VRC Sires Produce after winning the first two year old feature, the Blue Diamond Stakes over the six furlongs.
The phrase “off the map” didn’t do justice to the plunge Eddie Birchley led. The horse opened at an odds on price and Birchley continued to back the star Bart Cummings trained galloper in every corner of the betting ring. The bookmakers continued to take his money even as they rolled the odds on their boards in with every bet.
When the price of Lord Dudley reach 1/10 the bookies discovered that their betting boards could go no lower, and Birchley hadn’t finished there.
With a bookmaker starting price – written in pencil on a blank space on their respective bookmakers boards – of 1/15, Lord Dudley jumped the shortest price VRC Sires Produce favourite in history.
The flashy colt never gave Birchley any cause for concern, travelling kindly over the 1400m trip for Hall of Fame jockey Roy Higgins and winning the race by two lengths in a canter.
The legend of “The Fireman” had been born, a story that perhaps grows in stature each time it is retold.
Tales of his exploits in Melbourne are recounted in many pieces of literature, racing and otherwise, such as being mentioned in the autobiography of the infamous Mark Brandon “Chopper” Read’s book, 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.”
Another tale from the Melbourne betting ring is Birchley opening his shoulders and placing a $200,000 bet on a horse by the name of Cabboul, which cruised to an easy win saluting at odds of 6-1 at Moonee Valley.
Allegations of Bookmaker Collusion
Eddie Birchley refused to allow himself to be called a professional punter, telling the media in an interview in the 1970s that he only ever treated it as a hobby.
Birchley started to take more leave of the betting ring in the following years where luck, it seemed, began to abandon him.
A series of large bets placed with prominent Sydney bookies then failed to produce results.
One particular account recalls an afternoon where Birchley placed bets with numerous bookmakers, including his old sparring partners Waterhouse, Tidmarsh and Terry Page, in the Sydney ring amounting to a larger than six figure sum on a horse by the name of Danish Dancer at odds of 2 to 1 on.
Just as the horses reached the barriers a fire alarm rang out across Rosehill Racecourse, which caused the race to jump nearly ten minutes late.
Once the horses finally were loaded into the barriers, Eddie Birchley’s pick Danish Dancer ultimately had it’s colours lowered by rival Sheil Sail.
Birchley returned to Warwick Farm two weeks later, hoping to recoup the losses by backing his nemesis of the prior fortnight, Sheil Sial. He proceeded to outlay another $60,000 but unfortunately Sheil Sail did not return the favour and ran poorly.
It was after these events that Birchley became paranoid of rival bookmakers beginning to sabotage his bets. Accusations flew of messages being relayed to jockeys behind the barriers, potentially by farriers and other means, from bookmakers holding his largest bets.
Collusion with connections of his chosen thoroughbreds soon became a bigger concern, with Birchley claiming the publicity he had been receiving in the media was contributing to his downfall as the winners continued to dry up.
Despite the threats to expose corruption to stewards & police, no evidence was ever produced to support and such claims. Whether by choice or otherwise, Birchley slowly started to extricate himself from Racecourses across Australia.
“The Fireman” Fades Out
Those close to him confirm that Birchley continued to stick to his fitness regime until his final days, loving his lifestyle of strict exercise in the sun and sand, even to the point that his family raised concerns that if he continued to swim in the Tweed River at his age he would end up being swept out to sea.
Those same family members remembered that he never lost his love of gambling and the thrill finding a winner provided. He continued to place wagers in his later years, but never bets of the size that could compare with those he placed in his heyday.
After his passing in 2017 after a long and storied life of 86 years, his daughter told the story of the nurses at his aged care facility finding $14,000 cash tucked in the seat of his walking frame. They realised that he had been heading down to the local club and placing bets on the football, those punting urges never leaving him even in his final days.
The story of Eddie “The Fireman” Birchley has been spread, recounted and perhaps embellished at Race tracks all across Australia. His confidence, flamboyance and, at least for a time, discipline and commitment to his craft are the stuff of Australia Racing legend.