Monday, July 8, 2013

The Disappearance of Shergar

On a foggy evening, February 8, 1983, a group of at least six men wearing balaclavas and armed with guns appeared at the Ballymany Stud Farm in Co Kildare, Ireland owned by James Fitzgerald. At 8:30p, James thought he heard a car in the yard. He listened, heard nothing more, and forgot about it. Ten minutes later the men barged into the house, pointed guns at the family and held them in the kitchen. They only wanted one of them. "We've come for Shergar," they said. "We want £2m for him." Shergar was the retired racehorse in the stable outside.

It is now 30 years after he was kidnapped from Ballymany and what happened to him after he was kidnapped is still a mystery. There are a number of theories involving the IRA, Colonel Gadaffi and the Mafia being among the most lurid. One story suggests that the IRA kidnapped the horse for Gadaffi in return for weapons. Another suggests that the New Orleans mafia took him.

Shergar was arguably the greatest racehorse ever. He was an Irish racehorse born in 1978. He was the winner of the 1981 Epsom Derby by a record 10 lengths, the longest winning margin in the 226-year race history. The Observer newspaper placed the win in its 100 Most Memorable Sporting Moments of the Twentieth Century. Shergar was named European Horse of the Year in 1981 and retired from racing that September.  Only two years later, he was stolen. The incident has been the inspiration for several books, documentaries and a film.

Shergar dominated his first four races, winning at least above four lengths, as much as twelve. The fourth race Shergar won was the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot. After that came his only failure as a three year old. For some reason he did not run anywhere near his best. He only managed fourth place in the St. Leger Stakes at Doncaster. Shergar finished behind Cut Above, a horse he had beaten decisively in the Irish Derby. Shergar's racing career was over. His six wins had earned £436,000.

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 colors, he was paraded up the main street. The Aga Khan decided to keep Shergar in Ireland. It defied those who had expected his removal to the United States.

During his retirement and his new life as a breeding horse, Shergar produced 35 foals from his first and only season. The best of the offspring went on to be 1986 Irish St. Leger winner Authaal. 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 the fee would have doubled. But, despite the thoroughbred’s value, the Ballymany Stud was poorly protected and the criminal gang had little difficulty in gaining access. The theft was the first of its kind in Ireland.

The investigation faced difficulty due to planning by the gang, which had selected the crime on the day of the biggest horse sales in the country. Horseboxes had passed along every road in Ireland. Leading the investigation was Chief Superintendent Jim "Spud" Murphy, who told reporters, “A clue... that is what we haven’t got.

Despite numerous reported sightings and rumors of secret negotiations in the days following the theft there was little new information. However, the thieves made their presence known, and a price. Initially, they requested negotiations with three racing journalists, John Oaksey and Derek Thompson both working for ITV and Peter Campling working for the Sun. On Thursday morning he received a call telling him that the horse "had an accident" and was "dead". Someone else claiming to be representing the thieves said that the horse was alive and well. Four days after the abduction, the thieves made their last call. The syndicate issued a statement blaming the IRA for the crime. The thieves have yet to be brought to justice. Several theories as to their identity and motives have been put forward.

The strongest suspect for the theft is the Provisional Irish Republican Army, whose motive was to raise money for arms. This theory was further supported by Sean O'Callaghan in his book The Informer. He claims that the whole scheme was masterminded by Kevin Mallon and when Shergar panicked, so did the team, resulting in the horse being shot. He also claimed that Shergar was probably shot within hours of being snatched. The thieves, who had no prior experience with the nervous, highly-strung nature of a thoroughbred stallion, were unable to handle him. It was as if the horse said, “I'm not locked up in here with YOU. You're locked up in here with ME.”

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. O’Callaghan alleged the gang was part of the IRA's special operations unit, formed with the aim of raising funds through crime. Shergar was to be its first victim, selected because of the wealth of his assumed owner, and the misapprehension that theft of a horse would cause less public outcry than kidnapping a person. The IRA have never officially claimed responsibility for stealing Shergar.

Shergar's remains have never been found and the thieves have never been officially identified. The Sunday Telegraph reported that four days after Shergar was seized, the Army Council realized they would never collect a ransom. They decided to release the horse, but due to heavy surveillance on Mallon and under the eyes of the entire Irish public, the thieves felt it was impossible to move Shergar or free the horse near where he was held. Mallon thought the horse to be injured, and ordered his execution.

The two thieves, inexperienced in handling racehorses and with no prior knowledge of humane euthanization techniques, went to the remote stable where Shergar was being held and opened fire with a machine gun. A former IRA member involved described the scene to The Sunday Telegraph: "Shergar was machine gunned to death. There was blood everywhere and the horse even slipped on his own blood. There was lots of cussin' and swearin' because the horse wouldn't die. It was a very bloody death." Shergar slowly bled to death.

The disappearance of Shergar was made into a Hollywood film, Shergar, starring Ian Holm and Mickey Rourke, and directed by Dennis Lewiston.

What ever happened to Shergar? Was he, in fact, gunned down? Maybe he died dying the escape? Maybe he went on to procreate several more champion racehorses? Maybe he was just made into glue… We may never know what happened to Shergar. All we know is that is in a conspiracy that will never be uncovered.

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