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The Case of the Stolen Racehorse

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Bred in Ireland, Shergar was described in 2021 as “one of the finest racehorses of the last half-century.” The Daily Express enthused that he “captured the public imagination, becoming the pride of the Irish nation and dominating the racing pages.” He won the several classic races in 1981 and was retired to stud. Then, he was stolen by an armed gang and never seen again.

Shergar the wonder horse.

Shergar the wonder horse.

Shergar's Racing Career

The Epsom Derby is the top race for three-year-old thoroughbreds in the United Kingdom. In 1981, Shergar was the overwhelming favourite to win the mile-and-a-half race. And, win he did. With 19-year-old jockey Walter Swinburn aboard, the colt romped away from the rest of the field to win by 10 lengths. That was the widest winning margin for the Epsom Derby in the more than 240 times the race has been run.

Watch Shergar Change Gears in the Stretch Run

He went on to win the Irish Derby and King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, and the St. Leger Stakes in the following weeks, all top level races. His lifetime winning were £440,000 (worth about £1.7 million—$2.4 million today).

His owner was the billionaire leader of the Ismaili Muslims, the Aga Khan. He sold shares in the horse, putting his value at £10 million (£39.2million—$55 million in today's money).

He was retired from the turf, his sperm being worth way more than any race purse, and took up residence at the Ballymany Stud in County Kildare, Ireland.

Shergar Is Stolen

At about 8:30 pm on February 8, 1983, there was a knock on the door of the home James Fitzgerald, the head groom at the Ballymany Stud. When the door was opened three armed and masked men burst in. One of them said “We have come for Shergar. We want two million pounds (ransom) for him.”

The men took Fitzgerald to the stable and forced him to load Shergar into a horse box.

Fitzgerald's family was held at gunpoint, or locked in a room, depending on who is telling the story. The groom and the horse were then driven off in separate vehicles. After about three hours, Fitzgerald was given a code phrase “King Neptune” that was to be used in ransom talks. Then, he was left at the side of the road and told if he contacted police he and his family would be killed.

Police were not notified of the theft of Shergar for eight hours, by which time the horse and his captors could be almost anywhere in Ireland.

The thieves did not identify themselves but suspicion immediately fell on the Irish Republican Army (IRA). A massive search for the animal came up empty.

Shergar's disappearance was tangled up with the IRA campaign to unite North Ireland with the Republic of Ireland.

Shergar's disappearance was tangled up with the IRA campaign to unite North Ireland with the Republic of Ireland.

Ransom Negotiations

A day after Shergar was whisked away, a call came into the Belfast newsroom of the BBC. The anonymous caller wanted three horse racing journalists to work as intermediaries between those holding the horse and its owners. One of them, Derek Thompson, was given instructions to go to an isolated farmhouse and wait.

The journey was eventful. It was the middle of the “troubles,” when Protestant paramilitary groups and the IRA were killing each other, with innocent civilians dying in the crossfire.

Thompson relates how he was lost on a lonely back road when five men in balaclavas and brandishing machine guns stopped his car. He thought his life was about to end when one of them motioned for him to wind down his window.

As he stared into the muzzle of a gun, one of the men said “ 'Are you Derek Thompson?' I looked at him and said, 'Yes.'

“And he said 'We're the police.' To which I replied: 'Thank God for that!' ”

Police had received a tip about the location of farmhouse and Thompson was escorted there. Then, began an overnight series of phone calls.

Thompson tried to keep the caller on the line for more than 90 seconds to give the police time to locate where he was calling from. But, the man was wise to that and always hung up before the police could locate him. However, a call at 1 am lasted more than 90 seconds, but the officer who traced calls went off his shift at midnight.

The negotiations never got very far until the last contact was made. The message was short and curt: “The horse has had an accident. He's dead.”

The Unsolved Mystery of Shergar

The BBC reports that “The body has never been found. The most valuable horse in the world disappeared without trace.” Nobody has ever been charged with the theft.

In 1999, former IRA gunman Seán O'Callaghan published his memoirs, The Informer. The title of the book tells us that the man, in addition to his day job as a terrorist, was also an informer for the Irish police, the Garda.

According to O'Callaghan, it was the IRA that stole Shergar, but had not realized how frisky and highly strung a thoroughbred stallion can be. It seems more than 1,000 pounds of annoyed horseflesh was more than the thieves could handle.

As O'Callaghan tells it, “The animal was taken in a horse box on the road up to Leitrim, he had become excitable—they stopped several times to quiet the horse and they discovered he had fractured one of his leg bones.” There was no alternative but to shoot him and bury him.

Another version of the story was revealed by an anonymous informant in 2008. This IRA man said the terrorist group realized they had made a massive public relations blunder in seizing the beloved horse. They also realized the syndicate that owned Shergar had no intention of a paying a ransom in order to keep from setting a precedent. Insurance would cover the costs of his loss.

So, the order was given to kill the animal that had become worthless to them.

Bonus Factoids

  • In 1981, Shergar was named the European Horse of the Year.
  • Walter Swinburn, Shergar's jockey, went on to a successful career as a jockey and trainer. He died in December 2016 at the age of 55 from an accidental fall.
  • When Shergar disappeared, the press had a great time inventing theories. One newspaper speculated that Libya's dictator Muammar Gaddafi had taken possession of the horse in exchange for supplying arms to the Irish Republican Army. Another story was that Lord Lucan, who had mysteriously disappeared, was seen riding Shergar.

Sources

  • “Who Kidnapped the Derby-Winner Shergar and Why?” Ian McTear, BBC News, June 7, 2018.
  • “Shergar: The Mystery behind Ireland’s ‘Pegasus’ Part I.” Horses & History, Horse Canada, March 15, 2012.
  • “The IRA Informer Who Kept Gardaí on Track in Search for Shergar.” Ryle Dwyer, Irish Examiner, April 19, 2000.
  • “Shergar: Has the Mystery Finally Been Solved?” Julie Carpenter, Daily Express, January 28, 2008.
  • “Shergar: The Day the Wonder Horse Was Stolen.” Julian Bedford, BBC, February 8, 2013.

© 2021 Rupert Taylor

Comments

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on June 09, 2021:

No Shauna. The Shergar case remains open and unsolved.

Rodric Anthony from Surprise, Arizona on June 08, 2021:

Rupert, as always, I love your articles and how you research and provide outside sources.

MG Singh emge from Singapore on June 08, 2021:

I am fond of horses and right from my younger days and also the academy have ridden horses. Racehorses also enthuse me. This story is wonderful and was interesting, so sad the horse was stolen.

John Hansen from Queensland Australia on June 08, 2021:

I have always had an interest in horse racing and am surprised I had never heard of this, Rupert. Thank you for sharing this unfortunate tale. What a sad ending for such a wonderful race horse.

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on June 08, 2021:

Rupert, it's devastating that an animal has to become the victim of political unrest. What's even sadder is that they are exploited and pushed to the limit in order for humans to gamble in hopes of monetary gain.

In America we have The Kentucky Derby. Fans get all dressed up in garb, hats, and their finest jewelry. I've never been a fan and don't watch it, nor do I support it.

We also had greyhound racing. I'm not sure about the other states, but it's been recently banned in Florida because of the abuse to the dogs. It's been proven that they've been given speed (drugs) to make them run faster.

In my opinion, animal racing is cruel. If you want to gamble, go to the casinos.

Has the truth about Shergar's disappearance ever been discovered beyond a shadow of the doubt?

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