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Shergar and Lester Piggott

Irish Derby The Curragh 1981

The great Shergar with Lester Piggott winning the Irish Derby at The Curragh in 1981. Shergar would later be kidnapped shortly after going into stud, and was never seen again.



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Shergar & Lester Piggott

The great Shergar winning the Irish Derby in 1981. Regarded by many as the greatest flat racer of all time, he won the Epsom Derby by a record 10 lenghts. Shergar was kidnapped shortly after going into stud and was never seen again.

Read the amazing story of Shergar and the kidnapping below.

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Shergar (born 1978. Sire: Great Nephew, Dam: Sharmeen) was an acclaimed racehorse, and winner of the 1981 Epsom Derby by a record 10 lengths, the longest winning margin in the race's 226-year history. This victory earned him a spot in The Observer newspaper's 100 Most Memorable Sporting Moments of the Twentieth Century. A bay colt with a distinctive white blaze, Shergar was named European Horse of the Year in 1981 and was retired from racing that September.

Two years later, on February 8, 1983, he was kidnapped by masked gunmen from the Ballymany Stud, near The Curragh in County Kildare, Ireland. The generally accepted account is that Shergar was abducted by an IRA unitwho killed him a few days later when negotiations for a £2 million ransom had stalled his body was never discovered. Shergar is believed to be dead, The incident has been the inspiration for several books, documentaries, and a movie.

Racing career

Bred by his owner Prince Karim Aga Khan IV in County Kildare, close to the stud from which he was kidnapped, Shergar began training with Michael Stoute at Newmarket. His debut race in 1981 was the Guardian Classic Trial at Sandown Park. Racing correspondent Richard Baerlein, after watching the colt win by 10 lengths famously advised race-goers that "at 8-1, Shergar for the Derby, now is the time to bet like men".

After winning the Chester Vase by 12 lengths, Shergar started odds-on favourite at Epsom, ridden by 19-year-old jockey Walter Swinburn, also entering his first Derby. Swinburn recalled that early in the race Shergar "found his own pace and lobbed along as the leaders went off at a million miles an hour, with me just putting my hands down on his withers and letting him travel at his own speed". Shergar pulled to the front early and went further clear, so far that John Matthias on the runner-up Glint Of Gold thought he had won: "I told myself I'd achieved my life's ambition. Only then did I discover there was another horse on the horizon."

Shergar's next race was the Irish Derby Stakes, ridden by Lester Piggott. The apparent ease with which Shergar passed the rest of the runners, winning by 4 lengths, caused commentator Peter O'Sullevan to exclaim: "He's only in an exercise canter!" The horse became a national hero in Ireland.

Seeking to exploit Shergar's value at its peak, the Aga Khan sold 34 shares in the horse for £250,000 each, keeping six for himself, producing a valuation of £10 million, then a record for a stallion standing at stud in Europe. Among the buyers were bloodstock millionaire John Magnier and Shergar's vet Stan Cosgrove.

The King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes at Ascot was also won by 4 lengths. After that came his only failure as a three year old when for some reason he didn't run anywhere near his best and could only manage fourth place in the St. Leger Stakes at Doncaster. Swinburn was sending out distress signals with two furlongs to go, and Shergar finished behind Cut Above, a horse he had beaten comprehensively in the Irish Derby. Lester Piggott's view is that "he must have been over the top by then" but, whatever the explanation, Shergar's racing career was over. His six wins had won £436,000 in prize money.

Stud career

In October 1981 Shergar arrived in Newbridge. Greeted by the town band and the cheers of schoolchildren waving flags in the Aga Khan's green and red racing colours, he was paraded up the main street. The Aga Khan, whose decision to stand Shergar in Ireland defied those who had gloomily expected his removal to the United States, was there to greet his prize winner.

Shergar produced 35 foals from his single season at stud, the best turning out to be the 1986 Irish St. Leger winner Authaal, but only one had been born by the time of the kidnap. The syndicate was able to charge a stud fee of £50,000 - £80,000 for Shergar and if his offspring did well on the track that fee would have doubled. But, despite the thoroughbred's value, the Ballymany Stud was poorly protected and the kidnap gang had little difficulty in gaining access. The kidnap was the first of its kind in Ireland.


On a foggy evening one week before the start of Shergar's second season at stud - with up to 55 mares - a horse trailer arrived at the stud buildings and he was transformed "from celebrity racehorse to cause célèbre" (The Guardian).

Sequence of events

At 8.30pm, a Ford Granada towing a horsebox pulled off the main Dublin road and into the stud yard. Inside his house, Shergar's groom, James Fitzgerald thought he heard a car in the yard. He listened, heard nothing more, and forgot about it.
At 8.40pm, there was a knock at the door. Fitzgerald's son Bernard answered it. The caller was dressed in a Garda uniform, with a balaclava. "Is he in?" the man asked. Bernard turned to fetch his father. A heavy blow landed in the small of his back, sending him sprawling. James Fitzgerald came out of the sitting room to see his son on the floor. The next thing he saw was a pistol pointed at him. Three men pushed their way into the house. The last one carried a sub-machine gun. The family were then held at gunpoint in the kitchen. According to Fitzgerald, the kidnappers were exceptionally calm and well organised.The intruders signalled for him to put his coat on. Two of them took him outside.
Fitzgerald was taken to the stud buildings 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. Fitzgerald said the gang numbered at least 6 men.
Shergar was towed away.
Fitzgerald was forced into another vehicle and driven around for some 3 hours. Fitzgerald was then thrown out of the car, only 7 miles from the stud, having been given a password the kidnappers would use in negotiations.


What happened next set the tone for a police operation that has been called "a caricature of police bungling." Fitzgerald called the stud farm manager, who called Shergar's vet, Cosgrove. The vet then called a racing associate, Sean Berry, who in turn called Alan Dukes, the Irish Finance Minister. Not until eight hours had elapsed did anyone call the Gardaí.

Their immediate investigation was not helped by a smart piece of planning by the gang, which had selected the same day as the biggest horse sales in the country, when horseboxes had passed along every road in Ireland. Leading the investigation into the kidnapping was trilby-wearing Chief Superintendent Jim 'Spud' Murphy, who became a media hero. His detection techniques were unconventional and a variety of clairvoyants, psychics and diviners were called in to help. During one interview Mr Murphy told reporters: "A clue... that is what we haven't got." Despite numerous reported sightings and rumours of secret negotiations in the days following the kidnap there was little new information and a news hungry press pack began to focus their attention on Mr Murphy. During one press conference six photographers turned up wearing trilbies, identical to the police chief, after which Mr Murphy was given a much lower public profile.

While the police searched every farm, stable and outhouse in the Irish Republic, the gang members set about seeking a ransom. Initially, they requested negotiations with three racing journalists, including Derek Thompson. He was dispatched to negotiate in the full glare of the media circus that descended on Ireland. The day after the kidnap, he took a call at 1.15am from someone claiming to be a kidnapper. He expected it to be traced, but was later told it had not been. "The man who does the tracing goes off duty at midnight," the police told him.

Away from the TV cameras, the real kidnappers had got in touch with the Aga Khan's Paris office. On discovering Shergar had multiple owners, the gang agreed to provide evidence he was still alive. Cosgrove was deputed to collect the evidence, which was to be left at a hotel reception. Unfortunately, a conspicuous Special Branch presence warned off the gang.

The furious kidnappers made a further call threatening to kill the horse and the Aga Khan's negotiators. Eventually, however, a photograph of the horse's face next to a newspaper was sent to the police, but the owners were still not satisfied. What the gang did not know was that the syndicate had no intention of paying because they wanted to deter future kidnappings. Syndicate member Sir Jake Astor explained: "We were going to negotiate, but we were not going to pay." Had they paid the money for Shergar's release, they reasoned, every racehorse in the world would have become a target for kidnappers.

Four days after the abduction, the kidnappers made their last call. The syndicate issued a statement blaming the IRA for the kidnap.


The kidnappers have yet to be brought to justice. Several theories as to their identity and motives have been put forward.

The IRA theory

The strongest suspect for the kidnapping is the Provisional Irish Republican Army, whose motive was to raise money for arms. This theory was further supported by Sean O'Callaghan, the IRA supergrass in his book The Informer. He claims that the whole scheme was masterminded by Kevin Mallon and when Shergar panicked, so did the team. He also claimed that Shergar was probably shot within hours of being snatched. "One of the gang strongly suggested to me Shergar had been killed within hours. They couldn't cope with him, he went demented in the horsebox, injured his leg and they killed him." Discussing this allegation on the UK's Channel 4, Fitzgerald said: "I assume he would have got very troublesome. And with them not knowing horses, they would maybe have got a bit scared of him." O'Callaghan said the IRA had demanded a £5 million ransom from the Aga Khan that was never met.

A pit was allegedly dug in the desolate mountains near Ballinamore, County Leitrim. The body was dragged into it and quickly covered over. No markers were left at the grave. The IRA have never officially claimed responsibility for stealing Shergar.

O'Callaghan alleged the gang was part of the IRA's special operations unit, formed with the aim of raising funds through kidnap. Shergar was to be its first victim, selected because of the wealth of his assumed owner, and the misapprehension that kidnapping a horse would cause less public outcry than a human.

Of all the theories about the kidnap, O'Callaghan's is the most widely believed. His knowledge of the IRA's kidnap plans was such that he was able to disrupt their next operation. After their trouble with the highly strung horse, they obviously decided that it would be a lot easier to kidnap a human who was also a millionaire and hold him for ransom. Their plan was to kidnap Canadian businessman Galen Weston of Brown Thomas. They planned to seize him at home in Roundwood, County Wicklow. Acting on information from O'Callaghan, armed detectives from the Special Branch staked out the house and confronted the would-be kidnappers when they arrived in August 1983. A shoot-out ensued in which two of the gang were wounded and three others captured.

The IRA for Colonel Gadaffi theory

Another theory is that the IRA stole Shergar on behalf of Gadaffi in exchange for weapons. Gadaffi's motive was allegedly