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The tragedy of Shergar: Champion racehorse and potential stud star kidnapped, never found 2017-02-06

Monday, 2017, February 6
Hazar Imam leading Shergar after a win
Isaac Ling

Can you imagine the enormity of the scandal if Black Caviar was stolen and was still missing 34 years later?

A tale like that began on a foggy Irish winter’s evening on Tuesday, February 8, 1983.

Shergar, one the world’s most brilliant, adored and valuable racehorses, was soon to begin his second season as a stallion when a gang of gun-wielding kidnappers broke into Ballymany Stud and forced head groom James Fitzgerald to load the horse into a float.

The intruders, while holding Fitzgerald’s family at gunpoint, then forced the man into a vehicle and drove him around for several hours before dumping him on the side of the road.

The motive was simple: a £2 million ransom ($3.3 million) for a horse that was worth many times that.

Shergar, a distinctive bay with a white blaze and four white feet, raced eight times for six wins, including a 10L demolition against a quality field in the Epsom Derby.

It was, and still is, the biggest winning margin in the English Classic’s 236-year history.

Having won two lead-up events by 10L and 12L, Shergar was sent out an odds-on favourite and both trainer Sir Michael Stoute and jockey Walter Swinburn described the winning feeling as relief rather than elation.

Much like with Black Caviar, the public not only loved Shergar and wanted him to win, they expected him to.

"Because of all the hullabaloo surrounding Shergar, the excitement started to build weeks and weeks beforehand. Everyone knew there was no way Shergar would be beaten provided I could stay in the saddle,” Swinburn, who was just 19 at Epsom and sadly died last year, later told The Telegraph.

“When I entered the unsaddling enclosure [the feeling] was one of relief. I kept repeating: `Thank God, I didn't mess it up for him.'”

Shergar's 10L romp in the Epsom Derby remains the biggest winning margin in the race's history.

Bred in Ireland, Shergar cemented his status as a national hero when, with Lester Piggott replacing the suspended Swinburn, he cruised to a 4L victory in the Irish Derby.

“Lester Piggot looking over his left shoulder sees no possible danger whatsoever. Striding up to win this, ears pricked, he’s only in an exercise canter,” was how the caller described the cakewalk at The Curragh.

With his status as a champion of the turf undeniable, owner the Aga Khan syndicated Shergar to a group of international breeders for £10 million ($16.6 million).

Thirty-four shares were snapped up at £250,000 ($417,000) each and the billionaire spiritual leader of Shia Ismaili Muslims retained six for himself.

Following a couple more wins and a shock defeat in the St Leger Stakes at Doncaster, the famous colt was retired, seemingly destined for a significant future in the breeding barn.

He was given a civic reception and paraded up the main street of Newbridge – a town near Ballymany Stud – in front of cheering schoolkids that waved flags in the Aga Khan’s red and green racing colours.

He may have been owned by a billionaire but Shergar was clearly a horse of the people.

The new stallion's first-season fee ranged from £50,000 ($82,000) to £80,000 ($132,000) and among his crop of 35 foals would be a horse called Authaal.

Authaal won the 1986 Irish St Leger before winning two Group Ones in Australia and running third in the 1988 Caulfield Cup.

Shergar’s value – both financial and sentimental - was obviously astronomical but nobody in racing-mad Ireland envisaged the harm that would come his way.

Shergar’s abduction became headline news all over the world but police weren’t notified until eight hours after the gunmen had executed part one of their extortion plan.

Those eight hours proved crucial as the kidnappers were able to disappear without a trace.

The timing of the plot was clever; it coincided with one of Ireland’s biggest horse sales which meant horse floats were travelling along every road in the country.

However, not everything was planned with such perfection: the gang had apparently failed to realise the Aga Khan wasn’t the sole owner.

This made ransom negotiations difficult – not that the Aga Khan, who was used to extortion attempts, was ever going to pay – and they inevitably failed.

Every farm and stable in Ireland was searched but the country's wonder horse was never seen again.

Shergar's kidnapping shocked the world.

Nobody has ever been charged – and there have been many theories - but it is widely believed the kidnapping was the work of the IRA, who were forever in need of cash to buy weapons.

Sean O’Callaghan, a former IRA member and police informant who was sentenced to 539 years imprisonment for crimes including murder and terrorist attacks, wrote in his book The Informer that Shergar had become fractious during the kidnapping and injured his leg, and was “killed within days” to put him out of his misery.

Another source told The Sunday Telegraph that the IRA quickly realised their attempts to extort the Aga Khan were futile and instructed the gang to release Shergar.

But with a nationwide horse-hunt now underway and the eyes of the law everywhere, the source said that Shergar was instead "machine gunned to death”.

While not able to detail where Shergar was buried, that same source described his death as a horrifying, bloody ordeal.

“There was blood everywhere and the horse even slipped on his own blood. There was lots of cussin' and swearin' because the horse wouldn't die. It was a very bloody death.”

Regardless of the truth of what happened to Shergar or where his body ended up, his disappearance will forever be one of racing’s most shocking and tragic stories.

"It was just such a tragedy because I can tell you he was the kindest horse you could have anything to do with. He had a superb temperament.”
Sir michael stoute, 2011

Swinburn was considered one of the most gifted jockeys of his time but he reckoned “anyone could have ridden Shergar,” such was the brilliance of the beast.

“He was such a great, great horse. The greatest? … All I can say is that he was far and away the greatest horse I ever rode,” Swinburn told The Telegraph in 2001.

"I don't know what really occurred during Shergar's last days - and it's probably just as well I don't - but he didn't deserve what happened to him. He was a smashing fellow … The Aga Khan was heartbroken, as was trainer Michael Stoute.”

Sir Michael Stoute, who has won the Epsom Derby four times since Shergar’s record-breaking romp, described Shergar as “the kindest horse you could have anything to do with.”

"It was just such a tragedy because I can tell you he was the kindest horse you could have anything to do with. He had a superb temperament,” Stoute told the BBC.

"It was tragic because they hadn't done their homework really and had committed a heinous crime and that was the end of a magnificent racehorse who had made a promising start at stud."

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