Shergar: The Mystery That Refuses To Go Away

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On the 8th February 2018, it was 35 years since the most infamous kidnapping of an athlete in history.

This athlete was worth an estimated $13.5 million.

And this athlete was also a horse.


Shergar was an Irish-bred race horse, which won the 202nd Epsom Derby in 1981 and within a year had won six races worth £436,000 in prize money. The horse won it by a record ten lengths, the longest in the Epsom Derby’s history.

The horse was owned by the Aga Khan, recognised as the current Imam of Nizari Ismailism, a denomination within Islam which has roughly 25 million followers. He also happened to be one of the richest people in the world, worth about $800 million. 

In Retirement

Shergar was retired to stud in October 1981. Much of the speculation was that he would be sent to the US, however, instead the stallion was installed in Newbridge’s Ballymany Stud in Ireland to see out the rest of his days over its 220-acres. It was rumoured that the Aga Khan had turned down offers of over $35 million for Shergar from the Kentucky bloodstock industry too. The decision was greeted by euphoria in Ireland and on the day of horse’s arrival, a band and groups of school children greeted his arrival.

Shergar’s job was to help produce superstar offspring and his stud fee was up to $110,000. Ahead of his arrival at Ballymany, the Aga Khan had however “syndicated” Shergar. This meant that he sold  shares in the racehorse so his ownership was diminished. In fact, the Aga Khan has syndicated the horse for $13 million, selling 40 shares and keeping just six for himself.

That Night In February 1983

On the night of 8th February 1983, a trailer for horse arrived at Ballymany after 8pm. A door knocked. Bernard Fitzgerald, son of James, who was Shergar’s groom, opened the door to what appeared like a Garda (member of the Irish polic force), yet this caller also wore a balaclava.

Knocking Bernard to the floor, the caller demanded to speak to his father James (Jim), who appeared from the front room. Three men barrelled into the room and held the Fitzgerald family at gunpoint.

From there, the gunmen forced the elder Fitzgerald to put the prized race horse into a trailer. Once in the horsebox, Fitzgerald was forced to drive for three hours, in a different vehicle, for over seven miles and was then thrown out by the side of the road. Meanwhile, to ensure his silence, his family was continued to be held at gunpoint.

In addition to this, when dumped on the side of the ride, he was also given told that the ransom demand was $2 million and the code word was “Arkle” to deal with the kidnappers.

Jim Fitzgerald, said in an interview with The Daily Telegraph:

“I can still remember that night in that car with them lads. All sorts of thoughts were racing through my head about what they might do to me. One of them, with the revolver, was very aggressive.”

Fitzgerald finally reached a phone and called the stud farm manager, who then rang Stan Cosgrove, Shergar’s veterinarian.

Finally, Alan Dukes, who happened to be a local politician in Newbridge and also the Irish Finance Minister, was notified. From there, he contacted the then-Minister for Justice, Michael Noonan.

Alan Dukes, then-Irish Finance Minister said:

“Quite honestly, I had a lot of other things on my mind at the time. I was due to deliver the budget on the following day. So getting a phone call at 3am about a horse going missing wasn’t exactly what I wanted to be hearing.”

This ring-around meant that it took a full eight hours until the Gardaí were notified of the kidnapping.

The Investigation

The hunt to find Shergar was led by Chief Superintendent Jim “Spud” Murphy.

Jim “Spud” Murphy famously said to reporters about the kidnapping:

“A clue? That is something we haven’t got.”

However, the investigation was hamstrung almost immediately. The kidnappers had planned the daring raid on the very day when horse sales were conducted at Goffs, meaning the country, and its roads, were overloaded with horseboxes.

The Case Unravels

Crazily enough, two sets of kidnappers seemed to appear in the days after the event.

Judy Maxwell, a horse breeder, received a call from someone claiming to be a kidnapper and demanding $60,000 in a ransom. From there, three racing journalists were also singled out in a call to BBC Belfast.

John Oaksey (Sunday Telegraph), Peter Campling (The Sun), and Derek Thompson (ITV)  were told to go to The Europa Hotel to await a call. However, by 3am, an individual, over the phone, had told them all negotiations were cancelled as Shergar had died in an accident.

While this was going on, another negotiation was progressing. “King Neptune”, as one person had called them self, demanded the $2 million from the Aga Khan. Yet, the Aga Khan had sold nearly all his shares in the horse and the syndicate decided it could not negotiate, otherwise, all other horse became fair game to be kidnapped.

Another twist arrived as Stan Cosgrove, Shergar’s veterinarian was told to arrive at a hotel in Dublin to pick up an envelope. He was told to use the name of Ireland’s then-latest Eurovision winner Johnny Logan, to get the letter. It contain the day’s version of a newspaper from Belfast and also a picture of Shergar’s head.

Four days after the kidnapping, the final call was made to Shergar’s owners. Following this, the syndicate blamed the Provisional IRA for the crime.

The Reaction

Stan Cosgrove, Shergar’s veterinarian said in an interview in 1984 in the Washington Post

“The kidnapping, it’s the first time such a thing has ever happened in this country. I never thought anyone would touch a horse in Ireland. Secretariat may have been a better racehorse, but I don’t think Americans would react to his loss the way we Irish did with Shergar. Never in Ireland.”

The story went global. It was front page news around the world.

Meanwhile, “Spud” Murphy became an overnight global sensation and even admitted how farcical the entire episode had gotten.

 Jim “Spud” Murphy (famously again) said to reporters:

“We are working with diviners, clairvoyants, and psychics, we must be running up to 50 in all three categories at this point.”

The Rumours

The rumour mill also went into overdrive in Ireland.

John McCririck, a well known TV racing pundit outlined that the perpetrators had a vendetta against the Aga Khan.

Some claimed that the horse was shipped all the way over to Colonel Gaddafi’s Libya, to pay for arms for the IRA.

Meanwhile, it was even suggested that the US Mafia were the real culprits. The theory went that they had worked with a Frenchman, Jean Michel Gambet, a bloodstock dealer, and given him a large amount of money to secure the horse from the Aga Khan, but the deal collapsed, yet Gambet took the mob’s money. He was eventually found in Kentucky. Dead. But the Mafia still went on to kidnap the horse, by using local criminals, according to the theory.

While in 2000, there’s was much commotion that Shergar’s body had finally been found. The examination of the teeth of a horse’s head found in Foley’s Glen, near Tralee, determined it was not the famous horse.

In a report in the Irish Times, Des Leadon, head of clinical pathology at the Irish Equine Centre, said:

“The teeth are not compatible with those of a five-year old. They are more those of a horse aged around one and a half years.”

So, WTF Actually Happened?

The most likely perpetrators, to this day, are still believed to be the Provisional IRA.

The most credible account is attributed to IRA member (who subsequently turned-informer) Seán O’Callaghan, gvien many, many years later.

He outlined his belief that Shergar became too much trouble for the kidnappers to handle and actually broke his leg within the horsebox and was  shot dead.

Seán O’Callaghan said: 

“They had to kill him because they obviously couldn’t call a vet, they had the most recognisable horse in the world on their hands.” 

“It was a total cock-up from start to finish.”

Even before 1983 was over however, it appeared obvious to everyone what had happened.

According to the Washington Post, Lloyd’s paid $10.6 million to the owners of Shergar who had been insured for theft and the “Shergar bureaus” had been closed.

Irish Times journalist Peter Murtagh words from 1983 still ring true in 2018.

Peter Murtagh, Irish Times Reporter said in an interview:

“It’s one of those stories that will never die. Every year, we’ll get another one. Shergar’s in Saudi Arabia. Shergar’s racing somewhere in Kentucky. He’s with Gadaffi in Libya.”

“Until they find a body in a bog or until someone opens a tin of horse meat with Shergar’s name written on it, people will always wonder.”

To this day, Shergar’s remains have never been found, nor has his kidnappers ever been found and charged with a crime.

The legend goes on.

Other Kidnappings

Up to this point, only two case of kidnapping of race horses had been recorded by 1983, none of which took place in Ireland.

  • Carnauba was stolen by Italian terrorists in 1975, and a ransom of $300,000 was demanded. No ransom was paid and months later the horse was found in a holding pen in a butcher’s shop in Milan.
  • Fanfreluche was stolen in 1977 from stables in Kentucky yet was found months later on a farm and finally returned to its original owners.