May 14, 2007

Shergar - Racehorse

Shergar - Racehorse

Say 'Shergar' and instantly images of kidnapping, international criminal organisations and tragedy spring to mind. What has been forgotten though is the fact that Shergar was one of the great flat racehorses of the 20th Century, winning six of his eight races by astonishing margins. He was reared in Ireland and was at the centre of the Aga Khan's1 stud programme. It wasn't the fact that he was a good racehorse, it was the fact that he was a great one that endeared him to many people and also encouraged many millions more to look at horse racing in a new light. Let's have a look at those wins, most of which took place in the 1981-82 seasons:
  • The Classic Trial - This was the race that marked the start of Shergar's glittering career. He won the race by an impressive ten lengths2.

  • The Chester Vase - Not content with having streaked ahead in the Classic, Shergar romped home in the Chester Vase with an astounding 12-length lead.

  • The Epsom Derby - This was Shergar's crowning glory and one that made the Aga Khan the envy of every single racehorse owner in the world. Not only did he win, he won with a spectacular ten-length lead - the biggest winning margin in the Derby's history. At the time of writing, he is also the only odds-on favourite to win the Derby and this win was also the first time one of the Aga Khan's racehorses had won a UK classic horse race. If you missed the race the first time or want to recapture the moment, why not listen to the commentary to the 1981 Epsom Derby?

  • The Irish Derby - Following his spectacular win in the Epsom Derby, Shergar claimed the Irish Derby with a four-length lead.

  • King George VI - He also maintained a four-length lead to claim the King George VI stakes.

  • Queen Elizabeth - And, as the best things come in threes, Shergar crowned himself as the King of the Queen Elizabeth stakes with another four-length lead.

After the Queen Elizabeth stakes, Shergar ran in the St Leger and came in fourth. It was decided that it was now time to put horse racing's greatest champion out to stud. 34 syndicated shares in Shergar were sold for �250,000. In his one and only breeding season, Shergar sired 35 horses.

The Kidnapping of Shergar

As befits a story of great success, there has to be some tragedy. For Shergar, this happened on the night of 8 February, 1983, when he was snatched from the Aga Khan's Ballymany Stud Farm, in County Kildare, Ireland. Here is what we know happened:

Sequence of Events

  • At 8.40pm, Shergar's groom, James Fitzgerald answered a knock at his door. On opening the door, he was forced into his own home and he and his wife were separated from the rest of their family. According to Fitzgerald, the kidnappers were exceptionally calm and well organised.

  • Fitzgerald was taken to the stud farm and led the kidnappers to Shergar's stall. Fitzgerald was forced to help the kidnappers load Shergar onto a double horse box which had been drawn up to the stall. It was apparent that some of the kidnappers were used to handling horses.

  • Shergar was towed away by a brown Hillman or Vauxhall car.

  • The kidnappers returned Fitzgerald to his home where he was held hostage for another hour. He was then bundled into another vehicle and driven some 20 miles away where he was given the ransom demand. The kidnappers wanted two million pounds for the safe return of the world's greatest living racehorse.

  • In the ensuing days, the Aga Khan hired some ex-SAS men to negotiate the safe release of Shergar. However, the kidnappers maintained a low level communication flow with the syndicate. It turns out that the kidnappers were superb horse rustlers but lousy negotiators. They never budged from their two million pound ransom and they asked for the money to be paid in �100 notes - a denomination of English currency which never existed.

  • The last the syndicate heard from the kidnappers was four days after Shergar was stolen. This is the time when it is believed that Shergar was killed.

It has often been questioned why the syndicate didn't pay the ransom - they obviously had the funds after all. The reason was quite simple: had they paid the money for Shergar's release, every racehorse in the world would have become fair game for kidnappers.

The Kidnappers

We know what happened on that fateful night, but who committed the crime is the stuff of conjecture. Below are outlined four possible theories, some plausible, some less so. What does unite these stories is the fact that they are possible - the fact there is little evidence to support them also means that there is little evidence to discredit them. So, here they are:

The IRA Theory

The strongest suspect for the kidnapping is the Irish Republican Army, whose motive was to raise money for arms. It's no secret that the Aga Khan is exceptionally wealthy and as head of a syndicate worth �8,500,000 could well afford the two million ransom. This theory was further supported by Sean O'Callaghan, the IRA super-grass in his book The Informer. He claims that the whole scheme was masterminded by Kevin Mallon and when Shergar panicked, so did the team. When the horse became too hot to handle, they shot him.

The IRA for Colonel Gadaffi of Libya Theory

This is a great one - it is believed by conspiracy theorists that the IRA stole Shergar on behalf of Gadaffi in exchange for weapons. But what motive does Gadaffi have? In a nutshell, it is the age old Islamic debate over who should lead the Islamic people - direct descendants of Mohammed (like the Aga Khan) or learned men (ie, Gadaffi). Far fetched? Yes. Impossible? No...

The Wayne Murty Theory

The Wayne Murty theory is the stuff of Dick Francis novels. Wayne Murty bought some thoroughbreds from Marcel Bouscer. However, when the latter died, Murty had some difficulty in proving his legal claim to the horses. He was hindered in proving his claim by the Aga Khan. Thus, by stealing the prize stud of his enemy, he exacted the perfect revenge. Again unlikely, but it does make great reading...

The New Orleans Mafia Theory

Now this is the stuff of a Hollywood blockbuster. In this, Jean Michel Gambert borrowed money from the New Orleans Mafia to buy Varyann (a champion racehorse) from the Aga Khan. The deal collapsed, but Gambert had apparently spent the money. Gambert died in dubious circumstances in his car after it was revealed that he couldn't honour his loan. The theory concludes that the Mafia felt that they were owed a racehorse from the Aga Khan and what better one to rustle than Shergar?

And what of Shergar?

With all this talk of rustling, ransoms, Mafia and oodles of money, it's all too easy to forget about Shergar. Nobody knows what has happened to Shergar but there is one thing that is almost certain - he is dead. How he died remains a matter of conjecture. A couple of years back a skull was found 100 miles from Ballymany Stud Farm. The skull had two bullet hole punctures and was buried in a sack and only loosely covered with soil. For a couple of days, the world held its breath while tests were carried out - DNA analysis was possible due to the fact that Shergar had 35 direct descendants and the fact that two veterinary students plucked two hairs from the horse when he was alive. It turned out that the DNA didn't match and the horse was too young to be Shergar (judged from the teeth).

Nobody gained from the kidnapping of Shergar - the kidnappers never got their money and the insurers never paid out to the syndicate, claiming that he could still have been alive after the policy had expired.

But when we remember Shergar, we must remember his legacy, rather than a tragic victim. He was such an inspiration that the Shergar Cup was inaugurated in his honour at Goodwood Racecourse in 1999. The race is now run at Ascot and is a contest between European horses and riders and those from the rest of the world. It is a fitting legacy for racing's greatest ambassador.

1 Imam of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims and a direct descendant of Mohammed.
2 A length in horse racing is the length of a horse.

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