Yesterday saw Irish raider, Ruler Of The World, gallop into the history books triumphant in the 234th running of the Epsom Derby. In 1981 a three year old Irish colt won the great race by a record 10 lengths, the longest winning margin in the race's history. That colt was Shergar, reputedly the greatest racehorse of his era and the horse whose fate has remained a mystery for nearly 30 years.
Shergar was five years old and the team at the Ballymany Stud in County Kildare were preparing for the superstar horse's second season as a breeding stallion. At the end of his racing career, the imposing bay was syndicated for £10 million over 40 shares of £250,000 each to stand at stud. Just six of the shares belonged to the Aga Khan. Shergar's covering fee was £80,000 and he was expected to serve at least 55 mares during that season.
In those days of blissful naivety the Ballymany Stud had no electronic security gates, CCTV cameras or access intercom screening, despite the fact that some of its residents were worth millions of pounds each.
The night of 8 February 1983 was misty and cold. Shortly after 8.30pm, the head groom's son answered a knock on the door. Three masked, armed men burst in and demanded Shergar. "We want £2 million (ransom) for him", one said. The head groom, Mr Fitzgerald, was marched at gunpoint to the horse's stable and was forced to load him into a stolen horsebox brought by the gunmen. The terrified man was then ordered into a car with four of the gang; two remaining behind to "guard" his family. The gunmen drove for a few miles before throwing Mr Fitzgerald out of the car with orders not to turn around and not to contact the police if he wanted his family to live. Mr Fitzgerald eventually walked to the next village and rang his brother.
Much to his great relief, Fitzgerald's family was unharmed and as soon as he was safely home, he contacted the stud manager. There then followed a round robin of frantic telephone calls which triggered one of the biggest security operations in the Republic's history. The kidnappers had picked the day before one of Ireland's major racehorse sales to abduct the horse and consequently the lanes and main roads were awash with horseboxes making it even more difficult for the stallion to be found.
The kidnappers quickly began negotiations with the Aga Khan's representatives, mistakenly believing that he owned Shergar outright. However, all the syndicate members were in agreement that if the ransom were paid, every valuable racehorse in the country would become a target. The gang also failed to predict the reaction of the public to Shergar's kidnapping. The horse was a hugely popular equine hero and the outraged public was only too keen to help in the search for him.
But who had taken the horse? Conspiracy theories abounded. Was it the Mafia? The IRA? Even Colonel Gaddafi was suggested as the guilty party. Most investigators accepted however that the IRA was to blame and an IRA double killer turned police informant, O'Callaghan, stated so in a book he wrote. He suggested that the highly strung horse had panicked during its ordeal and injured itself so that it was put out of its misery by one of the gang within days of the abduction. According to one source, (a former IRA member), this was not the full truth of Shergar's final fate.
It is alleged by this source that when the gang realised that the syndicate would not pay the ransom and that the horse was effectively worthless, they were instructed by the gang leader to release him. However, the countryside around the holding place was crawling with the Garda and other searchers looking for the horse and it was deemed too dangerous to let him go. The vet who had been contracted by the kidnappers to look after the horse had lost his nerve at the last minute and refused to get involved. And so the horse was shot; machine gunned to death in his stable.
Despite extensive enquiries and investigations by independent agents, the press and the police, Shergar's body was never recovered and his final resting place remains a mystery to this day.
Thankfully, there has been no repeat of such an incident since Shergar's abduction and we can only hope that such a cruel and pointless atrocity never happens again.