March 14, 2004
Jockey Walter Swinburn and Shergar race to one of
their wins in January 1981.
Photo: Getty Images
Jockey Walter Swinburn and Shergar race to one of their wins in January 1981.
Photo: Getty Images
Previously unreleased evidence is to be aired in a television documentary about the disappearance of champion racehorse Shergar. Paul Kelso reports from London.
The kidnapping of the champion racehorse Shergar was an ill-conceived and poorly executed shambles, according to previously unreleased evidence in a television documentary to be screened next week.
Shergar was kidnapped in 1983 by an IRA gang that demanded a £2 million ransom. After the horse's owners refused to pay, the animal was never seen again, presumed dead, though remains have never been found. Now transcripts of negotiations between the IRA gang and representatives of the Aga Khan cast fresh light on one of the great unsolved mysteries of recent times. The Channel Four documentary, to be broadcast on Thursday, also reveals that police discovered evidence linking the kidnap with the IRA days after the horse was snatched, and includes the first interview with Jim Fitzgerald, Shergar's groom, who was briefly taken hostage on the night of the kidnap.
The telephone transcripts and Fitzgerald's evidence reveal that the gang made several crucial errors. Firstly, they thought that Shergar was solely owned by the Aga Khan rather than a consortium, an assumption that undermined their ability to negotiate. The gang also appears to have underestimated the difficulty of taking a stallion hostage - Shergar was in stud at the time and at his friskiest. They are thought to have panicked and killed Shergar within hours.
The kidnappers' failings were echoed by the hapless search for the horse that dominated attention in Ireland, the United Kingdom and beyond in 1983. Shergar had shot to prominence two years previously when in one record-breaking season the stallion established itself as one of the greatest thoroughbreds of all time. Ridden by 19-year-old jockey Walter Swinburn and wearing the colours of the Aga Khan, Shergar won the 1981 English Derby by a record 10 lengths, then added the Irish equivalent and the equally prestigious King George VI Stakes.
The horse became a national hero in Ireland, where he was born and trained. More importantly, it had guaranteed a stud value of more than £10 million for the Aga Khan. 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. Among the buyers were bloodstock millionaire John Magnier and Shergar's vet Stan Cosgrove.
While the share issue guaranteed the Aga Khan more than £8 million, the kidnappers were ignorant of this when, on the evening of February 8, 1983, they arrived at the Ballymanny Stud, County Kildare.
The gang was part of the IRA's special operations unit, formed with the aim of raising funds through kidnap. Shergar was to be its first victim, selected because of the wealth of his assumed owner, and the misapprehension that kidnapping a horse would cause less public outcry than a human. The four-man gang burst into Fitzgerald's home, holding his family at gunpoint while he was forced to take them to Shergar's stable, where both were seized. After a few kilometres, Fitzgerald was thrown out of the car, but not before he had been given a password the kidnappers would use in negotiations.
What happened next set the tone for a police operation that was a caricature of police bungling. Fitzgerald called his boss, the stud farm manager, who called Cosgrove. The vet called a racing chum, Sean Berry, who in turn called Alan Dukes, the Irish finance minister. Not until eight hours after the kidnap, with the trail well and truly cold, did anyone think to call the police.
Their task was not helped by one smart 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.
While the police searched every farm, stable and outhouse in the Irish Republic and recruited the help of diviners, clairvoyants and psychics, the gang members set about seeking a ransom. Initially, they put out a hoax call to three racing journalists, including Derek Thompson, now a commentator at Channel Four. He was dispatched to negotiate in the full glare of the media circus that descended on Ireland. The day after the kidnap, he took a call at 1.15am from someone claiming to be a kidnapper. He expected it to be traced, but was later told it had not been. "The man who does the tracing goes off duty at midnight," the police told him.
Away from the TV cameras, the real kidnappers had got in touch with the Aga Khan's Paris office. On discovering Shergar had multiple owners, the gang agreed to provide evidence he was still alive. Cosgrove was deputed to collect the evidence, which was to be left at a hotel reception. Unfortunately, a conspicuous special branch presence warned off the gang.
The furious kidnappers made a further call threatening to kill the horse 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 Aga Khan, spiritual leader to 10 million Ismaili Muslims, was used to extortion and had ruled out paying from the start.
Four days after the abduction, the kidnappers made their last call. According to IRA informant Sean O'Callaghan, Shergar was probably shot within hours of being snatched. "One of the gang strongly suggested to me Shergar had been killed within hours. They couldn't cope with him, he went demented in the horsebox, injured his leg and they killed him."
Fitzgerald tells the program: "I assume he would have got very troublesome. And with them not knowing horses, they would maybe have got a bit scared of him. A horse like him would normally be buried in a special place with a plaque and all . . . he's buried out there somewhere in the country and no one knows where. It's not right."