Shergar the racehorse may not be a household name in North America, but in Ireland he is remembered as a nation’s favourite racing “son.” Sadly, along with those memories are recollections of “The Troubles,” the killing and strife that existed between Irish Catholics and Protestants in the late 1960s until around 1998. It was those conflicts and the greed that fuelled them that led to the grisly demise of an equine superhorse almost three decades ago.
Our story begins in County Leitrim, Ireland, a sparsely populated region that was bandit country when Irish Republican Army members (IRA) and supporters smuggled their weapons and arms over the border to the north, attacked and then retreated to safe houses.
The hills surrounding Leitrim have and hold many secrets but the greatest of all is the mystery surrounding the disappearance and death of Shergar, a racehorse of almost mythical proportions. The story itself reads like a whodunit complete with bungled police investigations, miscommunications, misinformation, the billionaire Aga Khan, IRA members, syndicate members and sadly, kidnappers who didn’t have a clue about handling a stallion, albeit, a gentle and kind one.
Shergar was a character and soon captured the hearts of the British and Irish racing fans in the early 1980s. He had a white blaze on his face, four white socks and he ran with his tongue lolling out to one side of his mouth. In his two and three old years, his racing victories were sensational and he took the 1981 Derby by an amazing 10 lengths, a record distance for Britain’s biggest flat race. He was owned by none other than the Aga Khan, the billionaire spiritual leader of the world’s 15 million Ismaili Muslims, was trained by Sir Michael Stoute at Newmarket, England and was ridden by the “choirboy”, the angelic looking 19 year old jockey Walter Swinburn. Shergar was named European Horse of the Year in 1981.
At the end of his racing career the Irish and British public breathed a sigh of relief when Shergar was sent back to Ireland instead of America to stand at stud for shares of 10 million pounds (40 shares worth 250,000 pounds each, six of which were kept by the Aga Khan). It was thought he would have a long and distinguished stud career ahead of him. Little did anybody know what lay ahead.
Thirty years ago the Ballymany Stud, close to The Curragh racetrack, was protected from the outside world by nothing more than a five bar wooden gate and latch, despite the fact that the four legged equines within were worth millions of pounds each. Today’s CCTV cameras and security guards were unheard of. Around 8.30pm on February 8th, 1983 Jim Fitzgerald, head groom at the stud heard a knock at his door. His son Bernard answered and three masked, armed men barged in demanding, “We have come for Shergar. We want 2 million pounds (ransom) for him.”
The gunmen then took the elder Fitzgerald out to the stables and ordered him to lead Shergar into a stolen horse box. He himself was then put into a car and driven about three miles from the farm where he was ordered to “Get out, keep walking, don’t turn around and say nothing.”
Once back at home Fitzgerald found his family of six unharmed and he rang the stud manager Ghislain Drior who in turn called Stan Cosgrove, Shergar’s vet who also had a share in the horse. Cosgrove then called his friend, former Army officer Captain Sean Berry who called Alan Dukes, the local Member of Parliament and Irish Finance Minister. However, Dukes had a budget to deliver the next day and he “passed the buck” onto the justice minister. It was not until 4.00am that the Garda or Irish Police were alerted and one of the biggest security operations in Irish history galloped into action.
In Part II we will look further into the bungled, incompetent and disorganized search for this incredible racehorse that soon turned into a media circus. It was termed “a caricature of police bungling”. Only recently has the ‘supposed’ truth been revealed surrounding Shergar’s disappearance, but as long as dead men can’t talk and living perpetrators remain silent, the real facts may never be known.