Photo: Steve Powell/Getty Images

Inside racing’s greatest drama

Author: alex Cairns

Shergar lit up the racing world in 1981, winning the Epsom Derby by 10 lengths. He was set to become a superstar stallion, but events took a dark turn with kidnap, ransom, and an uncertain end making Shergar’s story one of racing’s greatest dramas.

 

Shergar’s name, like that of Red Rum, Phar Lap, or Secretariat, remains one of the few to have escaped the confines of racing’s bubble and penetrated the public consciousness, resulting in a string of ‘true crime’ books, films, and television programmes.

Derek Thompson, a British racing journalist who was at the heart of the matter, recently spoke to Gallop, reflecting on this extraordinary series of events and offering his thoughts on where Shergar may have ended his days.

3rd June 1981: Karim Aga Khan IV, the racehorse owner, leading in the Derby winner 'Shergar', ridden by Walter Swinburn
3rd June 1981: Karim Aga Khan IV, the racehorse owner, leading in the Derby winner ‘Shergar’, ridden by Walter Swinburn
SETTING THE SCENE

Driving through the countryside of Kildare, Ireland, stud farms line the road. Kildare is the beating heart of Irish racing and as such hosts some of the world’s most successful stallions. Sheikh Mohammed of Godolphin has an extensive Kildare property, as do Prince Khalid Abdullah of Juddmonte and the Aga Khan.

Today, high fences, strong gates, and vigilant guards signal the great value of the equine stock held within and access to the properties is strictly controlled. This has not always been the case however and in 1983 a lax approach to security allowed one of Ireland’s best ever racehorses to become a pawn in an unprecedented and audacious crime.

Shergar was foaled on 3rd March 1978 at the Aga Khan’s Ballymany Stud in Kildare. A bay son of British stallion Great Nephew out of Sharmeen, he entered training in England with Newmarket-based handler Sir Michael Stoute, who at this time received some of the Aga Khan’s highest racing hopes.

Having shown huge promise at 2, the 3yo Shergar came into the 1981 season with Classic claims and soon put these beyond doubt with a 12-length victory in the Chester Vase, a prominent Derby trial. Shergar started odds-on at Epsom, but made even this price look generous as he hit the front turning in and stretched on to win by a record 10 lengths under Walter Swinburn. 37 years later, this winning margin has yet to be equalled.

As if to underline the scarcely believable nature of Shergar’s Epsom efforts, John Matthias, jockey of runner-up Glint of Gold, after the race said, “I thought I’d achieved my life’s ambition. Only then did I discover there was another horse on the horizon.”

Photo: Steve Powell/Getty Images
Photo: Steve Powell/Getty Images

ABDUCTION

A Derby winner is a money-spinner and, having added an Irish Derby and King George to his record, Shergar retired to Ballymany Stud as one of the hottest stallion prospects of all time. Syndicated to the tune of £10 million via 40 £250,000 shares, a stellar first book of mares and the highest standards of care assured Shergar the best possible chance to make a strong impact on the future of the breed. But after just one season at stud, fate intervened in spectacular fashion.

THE SHERGAR AFFAIR – Timeline
3rd March 1978 – Foaled at Ballymany Stud, Kildare, Ireland

1980 – Enters training with Sir Michael Stoute, Newmarket, England, winning on debut at Newbury

May 1981 – Signals Classic claims with 12-length win in Chester Vase

June 1981 – Wins Epsom Derby by record 10 lengths under Walter Swinburn

July 1981 – Wins Irish Derby at the Curragh by 4 lengths under Lester Piggott

September 1981 – Beaten in St Leger at Doncaster and retired October 1981 – Takes up stallion duties at Ballymany Stud, producing 35 foals from first and only crop, including 1986 St Leger winner Authaal

8th February 1983 – Kidnapped from Ballymany Stud 9th February 1983 – Derek Thompson contacted by kidnappers, threatening to kill Shergar and demanding an initial payment of £40,000

11th February 1983 – Shergar’s owners refuse to pay, wishing to deter future kidnappings

12th February 1983 – Kidnappers inform Thompson the horse is dead. They never call again and Shergar is lost

On the night of 8th February 1983, as Shergar prepared for a second season of stallion duties, a knock was heard at the cottage of James Fitzgerald, head groom at Ballymany Stud. The door was duly opened, only for several men to crash in wearing balaclavas and carrying pistols. While his family were held at gunpoint, Fitzgerald was forced to load the champion Shergar onto a waiting horsebox. Both horse and groom were then driven off into the night, in separate vehicles to different locations, with Fitzgerald being told not to contact the police under threat of violence to himself and his family. He was then dumped in a remote area of the countryside, many miles from Ballymany.

Uncertain and afraid, the Aga Khan’s head groom consulted various racing contacts and political figures before the police were called in. It was over 8 hours after the abduction that  a countrywide search began, meaning that the world’s most famous racehorse was likely to have already been hidden away in some inaccessible regiont. Connections of the horse, the authorities, and an increasingly excited public now awaited the kidnappers’ next move.

“While his family were held at gunpoint, Fitzgerald was forced to load the champion Shergar onto a waiting horsebox”

This is where racing journalist Derek Thompson entered the picture. Having a prominent public profile as a presenter for ITV, the UK’s terrestrial racing broadcaster, he was contacted by the kidnappers to act as a go-between with Shergar’s owners. Derek sat down with Gallop to take us through the inner workings of this incredible drama, revealing the pressure and danger he faced in his role as Shergar’s negotiator:

When did you first hear of the Shergar kidnapping?

At about 1.30am on the day after the kidnapping. I was staying in London to host a racing programme. I was fast asleep when the phone rang and a man from the Press Association said the kidnappers wanted me to go across to Ireland to negotiate for the release of Shergar. It was weird, but I took the 11am flight to Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Why did the kidnappers contact you?

I honestly don’t know. Presumably because I presented the horse racing on ITV. In fact, a year earlier I had just done my first Derby for ITV and Shergar had won it by 10 lengths. I had never seen a Derby winner like him.

What role did you play?

When we arrived in Belfast, we went to a city centre hotel. This was at the height of the Troubles, so a scary time to be in a scary city. At the hotel I received a phone call from a man saying, “I’m the kidnapper of Shergar. This is what I want you to do.” So he told us to escape the media and police and go to a farmhouse 30 miles outside Belfast. Here I acted as intermediary between the kidnappers and the police, who were trying to trace the calls.

Who were the kidnappers? What did they want?

We still don’t know who they were, although we have our ideas. They kept making phone calls to me. I must have received about 8 calls and the police were trying to trace them. Each time we used code names for security. It was a very cold voice and I can still hear it to this day. They wanted money for the horse, initially £40,000, and they wanted us to get in touch with the Aga Khan, even though he held just 6 of Shergar’s 40 shares.

What was the media attention like?

When we got to Belfast it was like something out of a Hollywood film. There were about 50 cameras taking photos and reporters asking us questions. We knew almost nothing about it, but it was clearly a big deal.

“So he told us to escape the media and police and go to a farmhouse  30 miles outside Belfast”

Did you think you would get the horse back alive?

Yes, we did, because we had no idea who exactly we were dealing with. Now, with hindsight, we can imagine what might have already happened to the horse, but at the time there were rumours that he had gone to the north, to the south. Some people even said he had been taken abroad to become a sire. So all we could do was negotiate and do the best possible in the circumstances.

How did the saga end?

A couple of days into the negotiations, during the early hours of the morning, I received a call saying, “The horse has had an accident. He’s dead.” After that, we didn’t hear any more, though there was still a lot of media speculation. When I returned to my home in north Yorkshire, my neighbour who had worked in the security forces told me I shouldn’t rush back to Belfast. And I didn’t.

What do you think happened to Shergar?

Sadly the horse has never been found. I feel sorry for the horse, as it had nothing to do with him. All he did was be good. I have heard different stories. There was a guy who came out and said it was the Irish Republican Army and he was involved. He didn’t have any proof however and didn’t tell us what had happened to the horse. So we just don’t know.

So Shergar was lost, with only one crop of foals to his name. And one of the saddest and most frustrating aspects of Shergar’s disappearance was that this first crop of just 35 foals contained a Classic winner. Authaal, out of Nijinsky mare Galletto, won the 1986 St Leger in the famous maroon and white silks of Sheikh Mohammed. He also added 2 Australian G1s to his record when transferred there in 1988. Unfortunately for connections and those hoping that the Shergar sire line would yet make an impact on the breed, Authaal stood in Japan for 10 seasons without success.

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