Belfast Telegraph > Features Publication
Date: 31 May 2003
By David Gordon

The winter's night they took Shergar

SHERGAR was a wonder horse, loved by everyone but the bookmakers. Bred in Ireland by the Aga Khan, he won six of his eight races. Lester Piggott rode him to a four-length victory in the Irish Derby. The King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes were notched up by the same margin. He won the 1981 Epsom Derby by a record 10 lengths.

Voted European horse of the year in 1981, Shergar remains the last odds-on favourite to win the Epsom Derby.

When he was retired to stud he was seen as a money-making machine, but not just by the syndicate selling his services at 80,000 a time.

He had caught the attention of others - men lacking respect for the blue-blooded prince of an equine monarchy.

Plans were set in motion that would result in Shergar becoming the Lord Lucan of the flat-racing world.

Wednesday, February 8, 1983 saw a thick fog descending on the Ballymany Stud in Co Kildare, where Shergar was kept.

Darkness closed around the yard soon after four. Fifty-eight-year-old stable hand Jim Fitzgerald whispered a few soothing words into the horse's ears before bolting the inner and outer doors.

Pulling his jacket tight across his chest, he hurried across the yard to his home.

What was to happen in the next few hours would bring sorrow into his life, something that he would never totally get over.

There were few out and about that February night.

No one saw the Ford Granada towing a horsebox pull off the main Dublin road at about 8.30 that evening.

Inside his house, Jim Fitzgerald thought he heard a car in the yard. He listened, heard nothing more, and forgot about it.

So when there was a knock at the door he wasn't unduly concerned. His son Bernard rose to answer it.

The caller, silhouetted against the grey fog, was dressed in a makeshift Garda uniform.

The balaclava the man was wearing didn't strike Bernard as incongruous on such a bitter night.

"Is he in?" the man asked. Bernard turned to fetch his father. A heavy blow landed in the small of his back, sending him sprawling.

Jim Fitzgerald came out of the sitting room to see his son on the floor. The next thing he saw was a pistol pointed at him.

Three men pushed their way into the small house. The last one carried a sub-machine gun. They half-pushed, half-hauled Bernard and Jim into the kitchen where Madge, Jim's wife, stood terror-stricken.

"What do you want with us?" Jim asked them. "We haven't done anything."

The man who had hit Bernard answered: "We've come for Shergar and we want two million quid for him. Call the police and he's dead."

Fitzgerald was not sure if the threat was directed at his son or Shergar. The intruders signalled for Jim to put his coat on. Two of them took him outside.

With his family being held at the point of a gun, Shergar's groom had no option but to guide them to the stallion.

Fitzgerald was forced to watch as Shergar was led out into the yard and into the horsebox without any fuss.

The ramp was raised and the catches fastened. Fitzgerald remembers thinking how the shabby horsebox contrasted with the stylish transport Shergar was used to.

AN ex-SAS soldier was employed by the Shergar stud syndicate to negotiate with the kidnappers. Syndicate committee member Sir Jake Astor explained: "We were going to negotiate, but we were not going to pay."

Proof of life was demanded. Polaroid pictures were duly delivered showing a horse next to the front page of a newspaper published on February 11. This was not good enough, the negotiator insisted, when next contacted.

"If you're not satisfied," said the caller, "that's it!"

The February 12 telephone conversation was the final contact. The syndicate issued a statement blaming the IRA for the kidnap. Apparently the Provisionals were desperate to buy a supply of American Stinger missiles for deployment in south Armagh.

A book was written by Colin Turner, racing correspondent of a London radio station. His premise was that the kidnap had been carried out by the Provisional IRA at the behest of Colonel Ghadafi of Libya, a sworn enemy of the Aga Khan.

The death of a French bloodstock agent, Jean Michel Gambet, gave rise to yet another theory. He was found with a gunshot wound to his head in a burning car in Kentucky.

It appeared to be suicide, but forensic tests proved he had been murdered.

The Mafia were suspected of killing Gambet for not repaying a loan he had taken to buy the Champion Stakes winner Vayrann from the Aga Khan.

But would the Mafia have also sought revenge on this side of the Atlantic?

The truth may be more mundane. In 1992 Sean O'Callaghan, a leading Provisional-turned-informer and former chief of the Provisional IRA's southern command, claimed knowledge of what really happened.

Speaking from inside Maghaberry Prison, Co Antrim, he admitted that Shergar had indeed been kidnapped by the IRA.

According to O'Callaghan, Shergar quickly became distressed after leaving Ballymany Stud. He threshed about inside the horsebox, kicking and stamping.

He became uncontrollable, a huge mass of sweating horseflesh, lashing hooves and snapping teeth. Inevitably, one of his legs was injured.

The gang members panicked. No amount of soothing could calm the huge stallion. A decision was taken to shoot him.

Photographs of the horse eating a carrot, his head next to a current edition of the Irish Times, were taken just before the unfortunate animal was killed.

A pit was dug in the desolate mountains near Ballinamore, Co Leitrim. The body was dragged into it and quickly covered over. No markers were left at the grave.

While it is true that the Provisional IRA never claimed responsibility for stealing Shergar, it would be foolhardy to discount it. The innocent animal became just another name in the IRA's list of missing victims.

Shergar's racing prowess is still a barometer for greatness today. His Derby victory earned him a spot in the Observer's 100 Most Memorable Sporting Moments of the Twentieth Century.

Visitors to Ballymany Stud still ask which loose box was Shergar's - gone but not forgotten.