When one thinks of the Curragh in County Kildare, they think of the plains, famed in song and story. Possibly of St. Brigid of Kildare, whose monastery was the largest in all Ireland. Or they may remember the races that were held there.
Then there is Shergar. Shergar was an Irish-bred, British-trained racehorse, and winner of the 202nd Epsom Derby in 1981 by ten lengths, the longest winning margin in the race's history. He was bred in the magic and myth of fellow equines Seabiscuit and Secretariat. In one race, the announcer said, “The only way the rest of field can see him is with a telescope.”
But on February 8, 1983, he was stolen from the Ballymany Stud, near The Curragh, by masked gunmen and was never seen again. The incident has been the inspiration for several books, documentaries, and a film.
Shergar was a bay horse with a broad white blaze, bred by his owner, the Aga Khan, in County Kildare. He was sired by Great Nephew, a British stallion whose wins included the Prix du Moulin and whose other progeny included Grundy, Mrs. Penny and Tolmi.
His first run as a two-year old was a win in a field of 23 by just over two lengths in the Kris Plate, and he set a course record at Newbury. In his only other run, the William Hill Futurity Stakes at Doncaster, won by Beldale Flutter, he was second.
His 3-year-old debut race in 1981 was the Guardian Classic Trial at Sandown Parkm where he won by 10 lengths. Shergar’s winning ways continued, and he was becoming well-known in the world of racing.
After winning the Chester Vase by 12 lengths, Shergar started odds-on favorite at Epsom, ridden by 19-year-old jockey Walter Swinburn, also entering his first Derby. Swinburn recalled that early in the race, Shergar "found his own pace and lobbed along as the leaders went off at a million miles an hour, with me just putting my hands down on his withers and letting him travel at his own speed". Shergar pulled to the front early and went further clear, so far that John Matthias on runner-up Glint-Of-Gold thought he had won: "I told myself I'd achieved my life's ambition. Only then did I discover there was another horse on the horizon."
Shergar's next race was the Irish Derby, ridden by Lester Piggott. The apparent ease with which Shergar passed the rest of the runners, winning by 4 lengths, caused commentator Peter O'Sullevan to exclaim: "He's only in an exercise canter!" The horse became a national hero in Ireland.
Seeking to exploit Shergar's value at its peak, the Aga Khan sold 34 shares in the horse for £250,000 each, keeping six for himself, producing a valuation of £10 million, then a record for a stallion standing at stud in Europe. Among the buyers were bloodstock millionaire John Magnier and Shergar's vet Stan Cosgrove.
Shergar also won the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot by four lengths. However, he lost the St. Leger Stakes, and finished fourth.
In October 1981 Shergar arrived in Newbridge. Greeted by the town band and the cheers of schoolchildren waving flags in the Aga Khan's green and red racing colors, he was paraded up the main street. The Aga Khan, whose decision to stand Shergar in Ireland defied those who had gloomily expected his removal to the United States, was there to greet his prize winner.
Shergar produced 35 foals from his single season at stud, the best turning out to be the 1986 Irish St. Leger winner Authaal, but only one had been born by the time of the theft. The syndicate was able to charge a stud fee of £50,000 - £80,000 for Shergar and if his offspring did well on the track that fee would have doubled. But, despite the thoroughbred’s value, the Ballymany Stud was poorly protected, and a criminal gang had little difficulty in gaining access. The theft was the first of its kind in Ireland.
In early February 1983, one week before the start of Shergar's second season at stud, with up to 55 mares, a horse trailer arrived at the stud buildings at 8:30 pm. Inside his house, Shergar's groom, James Fitzgerald thought he heard a car in the yard. He listened, heard nothing more, and forgot about it. At 8:40 pm, there was a knock at the door. Fitzgerald's son Bernard answered it. The caller was dressed in a Garda (Police) uniform, but was wearing a balaclava, covering his face. He asked for James Fitzgerald, and knocked Bernard to the floor as he turned away. James Fitzgerald came out of the sitting room to see his son on the floor. Three men pushed their way into the house, and held the family at gunpoint in the kitchen. According to Fitzgerald, the thieves were exceptionally calm and well organized and referred to each other as Cresswell.
The intruders signaled for him to put his coat on, and two of them took him outside. Fitzgerald was taken to the stud buildings and led the thieves to Shergar's stall. Fitzgerald was forced to help the thieves load Shergar onto a double horse box which had been drawn up to the stall. Fitzgerald said the gang numbered at least 6 men. Shergar was then towed away, and Fitzgerald was forced into another vehicle and driven around for some 3 hours. Fitzgerald was then thrown out of the car, having been given a password the thieves would use in negotiations.
The subsequent police investigation of the kidnapping has been called "a caricature of police bungling". Fitzgerald called the stud farm manager, who called Shergar's vet, Cosgrove. The vet then called a racing associate, Sean Berry, who in turn called Alan Dukes, the Irish Finance Minister and local TD for Newbridge. Dukes in turn gave them the contact number for Michael Noonan, the Minister for Justice. After eight hours had elapsed, someone called the Gardaí.
Their immediate investigation was hampered by a piece of planning by the gang, which had selected the same day as the biggest horse sales in the country, when horseboxes had passed along every road in Ireland. Leading the investigation was Chief Superintendent Jim "Spud" Murphy, who was the subject of much media coverage. His detection techniques were unconventional, and a variety of clairvoyants, psychics and diviners were called in to help. During one interview, Murphy told reporters: "A clue... that is what we haven't got."
Despite numerous reported sightings and rumors of secret negotiations in the days following the theft, there was little new information, and the press began to focus their attention on Murphy. During one press conference, six photographers turned up wearing trilbies, identical to the police chief, after which Murphy was given a much lower public profile.
While the police searched farms in the Republic of Ireland, the gang members set about seeking a ransom. Initially, they requested negotiations with three racing journalists.
The day after the theft, one of them took a call from someone claiming to be one of the thieves. He got were demands for a payment of £40,000. On Thursday morning, he received a call telling him that the horse "had an accident" and was "dead".
Away from the TV cameras, the real thieves had got in touch with the Aga Khan's Paris office, not knowing that he only had a minority share in the horse's ownership. On discovering that Shergar had multiple owners, the gang agreed to provide evidence that he was still alive
The criminals made a further call threatening to kill Shergar and the Aga Khan's negotiators. Eventually, however, a photograph of the horse's face next to a newspaper was sent to the police, but the owners were still not satisfied. What the gang did not know was that the syndicate had no intention of paying because they wanted to deter future thefts. Syndicate member Sir John Astor explained: "We were going to negotiate, but we were not going to pay." Had they paid the money for Shergar's release, they reasoned, every racehorse in the world would have become a target for theft.
The strongest suspects for the theft was the Provisional Irish Republican Army, whose motive was to raise money for arms. This theory was further supported by Sean O’Callaghan, a former IRA informant in his book “The Informer.” O’Callaghan claimed it was hatched by senior IRA leader Kevin Mallon, originally from Tyrone, and when Shergar panicked, so did the team, resulting in the horse being shot. He also claimed that Shergar was probably shot within hours of being snatched. The thieves, who had no prior experience with the nervous, highly-strung nature of a thoroughbred stallion, were unable to handle him. O'Callaghan said the IRA had demanded a £5 million ransom from the Aga Khan that was never met.
A pit was allegedly dug in the desolate mountains near Ballinamore, County Leitrim. The body was dragged into it and quickly covered over.
Shergar's remains have never been found and the thieves have never been officially identified.
Few gained from the theft of Shergar. The thieves never got any ransom and most insurers never paid out to the syndicate, claiming that the wonder horse could still have been alive after the policy had expired. Insurance policies against theft taken out with forerunners of the Aviva insurance group paid out £144,000, according to Aviva's online archive. According to a spokesman for Lloyd's of London, those members of the syndicate who had been insured for theft were paid $10.6 million in compensation.
Thus the Irish version of Secretariat passed into the mists of Irish legend.