Welcome to the second post in my new Horse Racing History series!
I am someone who very much enjoys researching into the past. History has always been a passion of mine, so I decided to combine horse racing with history and this series will be a bunch of historical, interesting horse racing stories. I hope you enjoy!
I feel like everybody has heard of Shergar within the racing world, but I couldn’t do a historical horse racing series without including, probably, the most well known historical story within the sport.
Shergar was born in March 3rd 1978, he was an Irish bred, British trained racehorse. The Aga Khan – Shergar’s owner – sent him to Michael Stoute – now Sir Michael Stoute after being knighted in 1998, although not for his service to horse racing but instead for his services to tourism in Barbados where he was born – for training in Britain in 1979 and 1980.
On September 19th 1980 Shergar ran his first race in the Kris Plate at Newbury with Lester Piggott on-board. The race was a two year old colts and geldings race over 1 mile. Shergar went into the race as the favourite at a short price of 11/8 in a field of 23. He ended up winning on debut by 2 and 1/2 lengths.
His second and final race that year was on October 25th in the 1 mile William Hill Futurity Stakes run at Doncaster. Lester Piggott again took the ride, with Shergar’s starting price being 5/2 in a small field of seven, but a much more experienced field at that. Shergar finished second in this race, this time losing by 2 and 1/2 lenghts. After this race Shergar was then priced up at 25/1 to win the following 1981 Epsom Derby.
On April 25th 1981 Shergar returned to the track running in the Guardian Newspaper Classic Trial at Sandown, this time with Walter Swinburn riding. He went on to win triumphantly by 10 lengths. After this impressive win Shergar’s odds for the Epsom Derby shortened dramatically to 8/1.
(Sir) Michael Stoute then decided that Shergar needed more practice on a left handed course, so he selected the Chester Vase on May 5th, of course, held at Chester. He went on to win, once again, this time by 12 lengths.
On June 3rd 1981 he ran in the much anticipated Epsom Derby held at Epsom Downs Racecourse. Set over 1 and 1/2 miles, the Derby is a Group 1 flat race which is open to three year old colts and fillies. Shergar went into the Epsom Derby as the 10/11 favourite with Walter Swinburn taking the ride. On the final turn of the course Shergar opened up a massive leader over his rival. With commentator Peter Bromley famously saying “there’s only one horse in it – you need a telescope to see the rest.” With such a lead Swinburn eased up a little, with Shergar winning the Epsom Derby by 10 lengths, which is the biggest winning margin in the races history.
After his impressive win, the Aga Khan was offered $40 million to syndicate Shergar, which he refused. He instead decided to set up his own syndicate selling 40 shares at £250,000 – valuing him at £10 million, which at the time was a record for a race horse. He retained six shares for himself remaining the biggest shareholder then sold the other 34 individually to buyers from nine countries.
On June 15th there was a bit of a scare when Shergar was on the gallops where he threw off his rider and ran through a hedge and onto a road where he trotted into a local village. He was spotted by locals who followed him and once he came to a stop they led him back to the stables. Luckily Shergar was not harmed in the incident which Stoute later said was “very lucky” as there was a crossing right by where he got out.
Just three weeks after impressively winning the Epsom Derby Shergar went over to the Curragh in Ireland where on June 27th he rode in the Irish Derby with Lester Piggott back riding him, where he won by four lengths. After this race Lester Piggott went on to tell people he was the best horse he had ever ridden.
On July 25th Shergar then went to Ascot where he rode in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes where he went on to win by four lengths. After this (Sir) Michael Stoute and the Aga Khan considered entering him into the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe however decided he needed one more race to prepare.
Stoute and the Aga Khan decided to enter him into the St Leger Stakes at Doncaster taking place on September 12th – little did they know at the time that this would be his final race. Ten days before the race on September 2nd, a news article by Sporting Life was published saying Shergar had no been training well. All of which Stoute claimed were rumours that were untrue. The ground was soft at Doncaster which was ground Shergar did not like. When Swinburn tried to get him to accelerate, he simply did not respond. He ended up finishing fourth.
The dramatic change in Shergar surprised Stoute and the Aga Khan who decided to run a number of tests on him. Every test came back saying he was in perfectly good health and Stoute said how he worked well in training after this race. However, unwilling to risk the horse without a real reason as to what actually happened at the St. Leger, they decided not to enter him into the Arc. Instead, the Aga Khan decided to retire him, sending him to Ballymany Stud near the Curragh. The Aga Khan later told journalists that:
‘He had run so uncharacteristically in the St. Leger, we knew something had gone wrong, but we didn’t know what it was, so it was an easy decision to retire him.’
The Aga Khan was offered large amounts of money to put Shergar to stud in America, however he wanted him to go to Ballymany Stud, so in October 1981 Shergar arrived in Ireland and was paraded down the main street of Newbridge, County Kldare. At the time newspapers reported that Shergar was a:
‘National hero in Ireland, one of the most recognisable sports personalities – horse or human – in Ireland.’
In 1982 Shergar had a pretty successful breeding season, covering 44 mares of which 36 foles were produced. 17 colts and 19 fillies. Out of these three won Group races, the most successful being Authaal who was sold for 325,000 Guineas when sold as a weanling before being sold on just one year later for 3.1 million Guineas. He went on to win the 1986 Irish St. Leger. It was later said by representatives of Ballymany that:
‘Perhaps not a disappointing first crop, but certainly below expectations for a horse with Shergar’s racing prowess.’
In early February 1983 Shergar’s second stud season was about to begin. He was in extremely high demand and already had a book full of 55 mares to cover, expecting to earl £1 million for the season. However, on February 8th 1983, something terrible happened.
On February 8th 1983 at around 8:30pm three men who were all armed and wearing masks entered the home of Jim Fitzgerald – the head groom at Ballymany. They were a part of a group of at least six men but possibly up to nine. One of the men said to Fitzgerald:
‘We have come for Shergar. We want £2 million for him’.
Fitzgerald told police that the men were not rough with him or his family, there was one who carried a pistol who was very aggressive, but the others, not so much. His family were locked in a room and at gunpoint Jim Fitzgerald was taken out to Shergar’s stable and ordered to put him in the back of a stolen horsebox.
Shergar was then driven away in the horsebox – never to be seen again. Fitzgerald was then told to lie on the floor of a van where the men covered his face with a coat. He was then driven around aimlessly for four hours before being released near the village of Kilcock, which was 20 miles away from Ballymany. He was told he couldn’t ring the Gardaí (Irish Police) or he and his family would be killed. He instead had to wait for the gang to contact him. He was told the gang would use the code phrase ‘King Neptune’ to identify themselves by when they rang. Fitzgerald recalled that one of the men had a Northern Irish accent and another seemed to have experience with horses, however they never told him they were from the IRA nor did they give any other indication of who they were.
Fitzgerald was released and walked on to the village where he called his brother to come and pick him up. He arrived back at Ballymany where he rang Ghislain Drion who was the Aga Khan’s stud manager at the time. He informed him of the theft and urged him not to call the police as he was scared of the threats made to his family.
This is where it gets a little complicated, so please try and follow the trail as best as possible. At this point Drion attempted to reach the Aga Khan who was in Switzerland, before ringing Stan Cosgrove who was Shergar’s vet, who was also a shareholder. Cosgrove then contacted Sean Berry who was a retired Irish Army captain and the manager of the Irish Thoroughbred Breeders Association. Berry then contacted Alan Dukes who was a friend of his who was also the serving Minister for Finance. Dukes then suggested speaking to Michael Noonan, the Minister for Justice. Noonan and Dukes both told him to call the Gardaí. Eventually by 4am Drion had managed to contact the Aga Khan who told him to ring the Gardaí immediately. It was only then, eight hours later, that they made the call to the Gardaí and at this point, any possible trail they had, had already gone cold.
At this point I just want to throw in an opinion, why did it take 8 hours going from person to person to person to actually make the decision to call the Gardaí? I just think it’s a little weird and a whole lot of confusion. Anyway – back to the timeline.
Before Fitzgerald was even back at Ballymany and before he could even tell anyone what had happened, the first call from the thieves took place. The call was to Jeremy Maxwell who was a horse trainer based in Northern Ireland. They demanded £40,000 and later raised it to £52,000, he was told that the negotiations would only be held with three British horse racing journalists. Derek Thompson and John Oaksey from ITV and Peter Campling from The Sun. They were told to be at the Europa Hotel in central Belfast, this hotel was known as the most bombed hotel during the Northen Ireland Conflict.
The three men arrived at the Europa as instructed and were then contacted via phone and told to go back to Maxwell’s house to await further instructions. At this point the Gardaí instructed the three men that they had to keep the thieves talking for as long as possible when they rang so they could trace the call. The first call took place, Thompson tried to keep them talking, however they cut off after 80 seconds, which was not enough time for the call to be traced. Throughout the night there were a series of calls then at around 1:30am Thompson managed to keep the caller talking for over 90 seconds, which was long enough to trace the call. However the person that was doing the call intercepts had finished his shift at midnight and gone home – an opportunity missed.
On February 9th, the thieves opened up a second line of negotiation, directly contacting Ballymany Stud and speaking to Drion. The call took place at 4:05pm and was very short as Drion was not a fluent speaker of English and struggled to understand the Irish accent of the caller. The caller also had issues with Drion’s heavy French ponunciation. Around 90 minute later, they called again. This time Drion asked him to speak slowly. They demanded £2 million for the return of Shergar as well as a contact number in France where further negotiations could be made. Drion provided them with the number for the Aga Khan’s French office.
At this point, Shergar’s owners brought in Control Risks, a risk and strategic consulting firm who were to handle the negotiations from the Paris office.
On Friday February 11th, the negotiators demanded proof that Shergar was still alive, as many, including the press, had speculated that Shergar was no in fact dead. The thieves said that a representative should go to the Crofton Hotel in Dublin and ask for a message for ‘Johnny Logan’ who was an Irish singer. Stan Cosgrove, Shergar’s vet, went to the hotel and did as instructed. With him were armed members of a Special Detective Unit who were undercover. However no messages had been delivered so Cosgrove returned home. Not long after, the negotiators received another call, they were furious at the presence of the police and threatened that if any member of their gang were captured or killed that the negotiators and the police would be murdered in retribution.
On Saturday February 12th the thieves contacted the negotiators and said that the proof had been left at the Rosnaree Hotel. This was collected and it contained several polaroid close up pictures showing a horse. Some of which were pictured next to a copy of the Irish News dated February 11th. Cosgrove was seen these and he confirmed it:
‘Definitely was him.’
Although, he did say that:
‘It wasn’t proof that the horse was alive, at this point, you’d want to get much more definite evidence. If you’d have seen the complete horse it would have been different, but this was just the head.’
On that same day at around 10:40pm the thieves called the negotiators again where it was explained that the syndicate were not satisfied with the pictures as this was not enough proof that Shergar was still alive. The caller simply replied ‘if you’re not satisfied, that’s it’ and ended the call. No further contact was ever made. The syndicate attempted to re-establish contact, but there was simply no response to any request to do so.
Onto why the Aga Khan wouldn’t pay the ransom money, even though he was worth a ton of money. Well, there were several reasons. The first being that he was only one of 35 members of the syndicate, meaning he could not negotiate or pay on behalf of the others. Secondly, he was unsure whether Shergar would be returned even if they money was paid. And thirdly, he was concerned that if the kidnappers demands were met, it would make every high-value horse in Ireland a target for future thefts.
The shareholders were also totally divided on what they should do. Brian Sweeney, who was a veteran of the American Horse Racing Industry said:
‘If you ask a mother who has had a child that has been kidnapped if a ransom should be paid, I think the answer would be ‘yes and quickly’.
However, another shareholder Lord Derby disagreed with this, saying
‘If ransom money is paid for this horse then there is a danger of other horses being kidnapped in the years to come and that simply cannot be tolerated.’
So all in all, everybody was totally torn on what they should be doing in this situation.
The syndicate had a committee who later put together a full report for the rest of the members. This report examined the motives behind the theft of their most precious horse. The report concluded that the theft was either undertaken to ‘create confusion and publicity’ rather than obtaining money. Or that the negotiations were ‘undertaken with naivety’. They concluded this after taking a number of factors into account. Including the fact that many of the demands were actually impossible. For example, they demanded the ransom be paid in £100 notes, which simply did not exist. Another example being in one call which took place at 5:45pm to Drion in Ballymany, he was told to deliver £2 million to Paris by noon the following day, then a call at 5pm to the Paris negotiators, they were told to get the £2 million by the end of the night, both after the banks had closed. In another call, the negotiators in Paris was told to get an agreement for the ransom to be paid but they couldn’t contact anyone in Ireland, even though some of the shareholders were in Ireland. The report also concluded that it became very clear that over the few days whilst negotiations were taking place that the gang had thought that the Aga Khan was the sole owner of Shergar, they actually had no knowledge that there were shareholders and they also did not take into account how difficult it would be liaising and organising all 35 shareholders into a position of agreement.
Now lets look at the police investigation into the theft. As expected, the investigation was immediately hindered as they only found out about the crime taking place 8 hours after it had happened. It also didn’t help that there was a local Thoroughbred auction taking place at the time meaning several horseboxes were in the area at the time.
Chief Superintendent James Murphy took the lead in this investigation, he was a highly experienced detective. Interestingly, in his first press conference he told reported:
‘I have no leads’.
However this was a lie, he in fact had kept a lot of information from the media, including the fact that the police had found a magazine for a Steyr MPi 69 submachine gun, which suggested to them immediately that there was a link to the IRA active service unit in South Armagh. After a lot of comedic references being made, he was replaced as the public figure of the investigation, meaning he no longer attended press conferences, even though he continued to lead it behind the scenes. We can only assume this step was taken to prevent the media getting carried away with comedic references rather than focusing on the fact a multi million pound horse had in fact been stolen.
On February 16th the police released a description of the horsebox used by the thieves from what Fitzgerald had said. It was either light green or light blue with no working lights and no licence plates. There was a huge police search in both the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland of potential hiding places for Shergar, however no trace of him or the horsebox were found. At one point, up to 70 detectives were working on the case at one point, which is a huge amount. After two weeks of no new leads, no contact from the thieves and no new evidence, the police search was scaled down, although the investigation has always continued.
As you can imagine, with a story this big and the police limiting what they released to the public, the media had a field day in speculating what had happened to Shergar. Including a claim that Shergar had been stolen by Colonel Gaddaf as part of a deal to supply arms to the IRA, another claim by the Sunday Sport newspaper was that Shergar had been spotted being ridden by the missing Lord Lucan, another was that a Middle Eastern horse breeder had stolen him for stud as well as, in my opinion, the craziest one, that the Mafia had taken him to punish the Aga Khan over a previous sale of a horse which had gone badly.
After eight weeks, with still no real information, a senior detective approached Stan Cosgrove and introduced him to Dennis Minogue who was a horse trainer who claimed to have a contact within the IRA who had shown him a photograph of Shergar. He said that he could help get Shergar released for a random of £80,000. Cosgrove was asked by the detectives to assist them in a sting operation to try and lure the thieves out, to which he agreed. So on July 20th 1983 Detective Martin Kenirons assisted the operation. He put the money in the boot of his car in a remote village, which Minogue was to collect after the horse had been released. However, the following day Kenirons returned to his car to find the boot had been forced open, the money was missing and Minogue was also missing. The money was never recovered. Kenirons was then dismissed from the force for breaching regulations. However in 2018 he again reiterated his innocent saying ‘when it all went wrong, everyone jumped for the high ground. They (senior officers) all denied that they had anything to do with the ransom.’
To this day, the police and intelligence sources consider the IRA as the most likely suspects behind Shergar’s disappearance and supposed death. In 1981, according to intelligence which was received by intelligence sources, due to the success of previous operations including kidnapping human beings, it was decided by the IRA that they were to undertake another ransom through kidnapping or theft. This time focusing in on Shergar.
More potential evidence to back up this theory is that in 1999 Sean O’Callaghan who was a former member of the IRA who had been working within the organisation as a ‘supergrass’ for the police since 1980 published an autobiography. In his autobiography he stated that the plot to steal Shergar was thought of and planned by Kevin Malon who was a leading IRA member at the time, he reportedly came up with the idea whilst serving time in prison. He went on to say that two weeks after Shergar’s disappearance Gerry Fitzgerald, another IRA member told him that he had been involved in the theft and that Shergar had actually been killed very early on in the process. He panicked and nobody involved could cope with him, in a panic Shergar damaged it’s leg and the decision was made to kill him. O’Callaghan states that:
‘Shergar was killed within days’.
In 2004 he appeared on TV, again stating that Gerry Fitzgerald ‘strongly suggested that Shergar had been killed within hours of his kidnap’. Saying the IRA then kept up a deception that he was still alive and in their care.
Based off the information O’Callaghan gave, Irish journalist Kevin O’Connor identified that there were potentially three parts of the gang. One part were to undertake high-profile activity in Belfast to focus media attention in the North, one discreetly negotiating with the Aga Khan and the third part were to guard the horse.
O’Callaghan has also said that when they failed to get the ransom money for Shergar, they went on to kidnap a businessman called Galen Weston. The police found out and took over Weston’s house whilst he was visiting the UK. After a lengthy gun battle Gerry Fitzgerald and four others were arrested. They all received very long prison sentences. O’Callaghan stated that:
‘Essentially the same team that went to kidnap Shergar went to kidnap Galen Weston’.
However, to this day no arrests have ever been made in relation to Shergar’s death and nor have the IRA ever admitted any role in the theft and all of those named by O’Callaghan have denied any involvement. It’s important to note that many do not believe O’Callaghan’s version of events. A journalist has stated:
‘A confessed informer whose life depended on his ability to weave a convincing web of lies. Without more evidence, O’Callaghan’s story is just that… an interesting story.’
Something else I want to mention is that in 2008, The Sunday Telegraph did a special investigation and they allegedly obtained information from a different IRA member who said that O’Callaghan had not been told the full story, saying that:
‘The gang was so embarrassed by what happened.’
According to the unnamed source, a vet that the IRA had arranged to look after Shergar did not turn up because his wife had threatened to leave him if he did. He also goes on to say that when the IRA realised that the Aga Khan was not going to pay, the Army Council ordered for Shergar to be released. However due to the extensive searches by the police, they couldn’t release him. They also thought they were under close surveillance and that it was just too risky to release him, so therefore he was ordered to be killed. The unnamed source went on to tell the newspaper that two men went into the stable where Shergar was being held, one of them carrying a machine gun. He said:
‘Shergar was machine gunned to death. 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.’
So, if the sources are correct and the IRA did have some sort of involvement with Shergar’s disappearance and death, where are his remains? His body has never been recovered or identified, however according to several sources, including O’Callaghan, The Sunday Telegraph and The Observer, it is highly likely that his body was buried near Aughnasheelin near Ballinamore, County Leitrim. O’Callaghan has said that as far as he knew the remains were buried on a farm of an IRA veteran from the 1940’s and it would be difficult to get permission to dig on the land.
I think it’s important to note that there have been several claims of equine skeletons being Shergar’s. However equine pathologist Des Leadon has assisted the police in those claims, all of which were proven not to be Shergar. He has retained some strands of hair from Shergar’s mane and tail which he has said contain sufficient DNA to confirm or deny an identification.
I also want to mention the fact that Shergar was, of course, insured through several insurance companies. Hodgson McCreedy covered £3,625,000 of the total and had a theft clause within their policy. Other shareholders who were accountable for £1.5 million worth of shares had insurance that did not include a theft clause. Shareholders who owned £3 million worth of shares did not take out insurance, including the Aga Khan. Cosgrove (Shergar’s vet and shareholder) had an insurance police that was ‘mortality only’ with Norwich Union (now part of Aviva), who refused to pay, even when it became clear that Shergar was most probably dead. Also worth a mention that in June 1983, after legal advice was taken, the 20 policies that included a theft clause were all settled in full.
Oh boy that was a long one! If you’re still here, then hi, congrats, you reached the end! I just want to finish up with a few of my opinions on the whole situation and I would love it if you stuck around a little longer to give them a read and then sent over your opinions via Twitter, I’d love to hear them!
Personally I find it a little strange if I’m honest. Why did it take 8 hours and so many random calls before they notified the police? They lost a lot of precious time whilst they were messing around. In those 8 hours they could’ve taken the horse anywhere in the country or even to a different country before the alarm was even raised. I think it definitely sounds like an organised crime group, the fact they had researched enough to know a local auction was taking place and this would be a perfect time to strike tells me it wasn’t just a ‘lets steal a horse on a whim’ kind of thing. However, controversial maybe, but I don’t know if I quite believe it was the IRA. I mean, surely an organised group like them would’ve done more research into Shergar and known that there wasn’t just one owner and he now had multiple? I feel like an organisation like the IRA would’ve had so many different people with different expertise that this is something they would or should have picked up on beforehand?
Overall I just find it a heartbreaking story, not for anyone other than Shergar to be honest. I can’t imagine just how scared he must have been surrounded by strangers, no idea where he was or who he was with. That thought just breaks my heart. I would love to think he was released and lived a happy life with a family who had no idea who he was, that’s what my heart wants to believe. But in reality, I just hope he had a quick and painless death because inevitably, death is probably what happened to him.
I feel like I had to cover this story even though everybody probably already knows it, but it wouldn’t be a Horse Racing History series without including the biggest story of them all. If you didn’t know it, I hope you understand it now and if you did know it, I hope you found out something you may not have known before!
Thank you for reading!
Sidenote: My raffle to raise money for the Stroke Association ends THIS WEEK! So you can pop over to my Twitter and view this tweet for all information: https://twitter.com/zoelouisesmithx/status/1277629857460113410?s=20 There are some fantastic prizes and it is for a fantastic cause in honour of the 10 year anniversary of my mom’s stroke. The Stroke Association help not only those directly affected by a stroke, but also their families. They helped my mom massively and I wanted to raise money for them so they can continue to help other people in need. I hope you can all join me in raising money for this incredible cause!