Friday 17 November 2017

Flashback 1983: kidnapping of Shergar

This weekend 33 years ago, prize-winning racehorse Shergar was kidnapped, never to be seen again

Star: Shergar with Jockey Walter Swinburn after his Epsom Derby win in 1981.
Star: Shergar with Jockey Walter Swinburn after his Epsom Derby win in 1981.

Ger Siggins

One foggy evening in 1983, the IRA kidnapped a much-loved five-year-old from his home in Co Kildare. But, as one man who claimed to have heard the inside story later wrote, "They couldn't cope with him, he went demented, injured his leg and they killed him."

That the five-year-old was a horse makes it less shocking than if it had been a human child, but at the time there was wide public anger at the kidnap of a national hero. Shergar had won the 1981 Epsom Derby, followed soon after by the Irish Derby; "He's only in an exercise canter!" gushed BBC commentator Peter O'Sullevan as he romped home by four lengths at the Curragh. Another big win came at Ascot in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes before he was named European Racehorse of the Year for 1981.

The horse was retired at the end of that season, and took up residence at Ballymany Stud, Co Kildare, where his arrival was marked by a parade down the main street in Newbridge behind the town band and school children waving the green and red colours of Shergar's owner, the Aga Khan, leader of about 20pc of the world's Shia Muslims.

The Aga Khan sold 34 shares in the horse for £250,000 each, and kept six for himself, valuing Shergar at £10m. In 1982 he produced 35 foals, and another 55 mares were lined up to be covered in 1983.

But one week before the stud season was due to begin, a group of at least six men drove a horsebox through the unlocked gates to Ballymany and forced the groom, James Fitzgerald to load the animal aboard while his family was held at gunpoint. The horse was driven away and Fitzgerald released three hours later.

In the Irish Independent, writer Anthony Cronin compared the heist to the theft of the Mona Lisa and the Irish Crown Jewels. Commentator Micheál O'Hehir said he rated the horse as good, possibly better, than the great Nijinsky, and expressed concern that it might lead to a flood of racehorse departures from Irish stables.

The police operation was not the Gardaí's finest hour, although they were hampered by an eight-hour delay in hearing about the crime and because it was carried out on the same day as the biggest horse sale in the country, with horseboxes teeming on the nation's roads. The garda in charge, James 'Spud' Murphy, pursued unusual methods, with clairvoyants and psychics sought out for their views. His trilby sparked a resurgence in demand for the hat, with many of the international media covering the case adopting his style.

The gang tried to secure a ransom, and enlisted three UK racing journalists as intermediaries, but the deal collapsed in farce and one, Derek Thompson of ITV, received a call telling him there had been an accident and the horse was dead.

No ransom was paid, and most of the owners were unable to secure payment from insurers, who claimed there was no evidence of the horse's death. The mystery of who carried out the crime, and the last resting place of the great racehorse, have still to be solved.

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