A Racehorse Ransom: The Horsenapping of Shergar

Allsport UK/Allsport/Getty Images
Allsport UK/Allsport/Getty Images

It was just after 8:30 p.m. on Tuesday, February 8, 1983, when Jim Fitzgerald heard a knock at the door. Fitzgerald, the main groom for the Ballymany Stud horse stable in Newbridge, Ireland, was resting in his home on the stable’s grounds. The family wasn't expecting anyone. His son, Bernard, went to the door to see who it was.

There, in the doorframe, stood two masked men. Each held a machine gun.

Even before they spoke, Fitzgerald knew there was only one reason for them to be there. They had come for the horse. For Shergar.

Fitzgerald’s wife and four other children were also at home. One gunman ushered them into a room and locked the door. Yet more gunmen materialized. Another ordered Fitzgerald to lead him to Shergar’s stable, and Fitzgerald did as he was told. The man then produced a two-way radio and spoke into it. Soon, a horse trailer pulled up, and more men with guns spilled out. There were perhaps five or six in all now occupying the grounds.

The men ordered a terrified Fitzgerald to lead Shergar—who was soothed by the caretaker's presence—outside and into the trailer. Then they ushered Fitzgerald into another vehicle, blindfolding him. Both vehicles pulled out of the stable and past the unlocked gate that had permitted them entrance. Fitzgerald was driven around for what seemed like hours.

Finally, he was released on a strange road and given a brief set of instructions: He was not to call the police, or he and his family would be killed. He was given a code phrase, "King Neptune," that could confirm the group’s identity when they reached out to the horse’s owner to negotiate their ransom demand: £2 million (about $2.6 million).

They drove off, leaving Fitzgerald alone and in the dark. Somewhere in Ireland was Shergar, one of the most famous horses in the history of racing, who was being set out to stud for astonishing sums. His entire life, Shergar had been treated with the utmost care. Now he was in the hands of criminals. He had been horsenapped.

 

In the history of horse racing in Europe, few horses could rival Shergar’s accomplishments. He was born in Kildare, Ireland, in 1978. He grew up nibbling the nutrient-rich grass and soil common in the area, and which was believed to contribute to strong equine bones. Though he had run just eight times in his single-season career, Shergar had won five of his six starts, including both the Irish Sweeps Derby and Epsom Derby in 1981. In the latter, he won by a record 10 lengths, the widest margin of any horse in that race that century. The accomplishments netted him European Horse of the Year honors as well as a total of $809,447 in career earnings.

The stable at Ballymany Stud where Shergar was abducted. Independent News and Media/Getty Images

With his distinctive white blaze, white feet, and a memorable running style—he would sprint with his tongue lolling out of his mouth like a canine—Shergar was the pride of Ireland. When he was retired from racing, his owner, the billionaire Ismaili Muslim spiritual leader, the Aga Khan, fielded offers from Kentucky breeders in the neighborhood of $35 to $40 million for Shergar. But Khan, believing Shergar should be returned to Ireland, would not sell to American investors. Instead, he sold 40 shares of the horse to 34 shareholders valued at $15 million total, keeping six for himself. He then sent Shergar to his Ballymany stable so he could be put out to stud, with the profits being returned to the stakeholders.

Shergar’s first season was fruitful: He mated with 42 of 44 mares. The second season, which was slated to begin in February 1983, was expected to involve 55 mares, with fees for his offspring and their presumably superior racing genetics reaching close to $5 million.

But Shergar’s schedule would not proceed as planned.

Days before mating season began, the gunmen had knocked on Jim Fitzgerald’s door. By 9 p.m. that night, they'd left Fitzgerald on a desolate road and taken off with the horse.

Fitzgerald was able to walk into a village and locate a phone. With the gang’s orders fresh in his mind, his first communication was not to the Irish police, also known as the Garda. Instead, he called his brother, Des, for a ride back to the stables. Then he called his boss, farm manager Ghislain Drion, and explained what had just happened. A shocked Drion absorbed the information, then hung up and attempted to reach the Aga Khan, who was in Switzerland. Drion also telephoned Shergar’s veterinarian, Stan Cosgrove, seeking advice on how to handle the situation.

The calls continued, no one party entirely sure how to proceed. Very few racehorses had ever been abducted, with the two highest-profile cases both outside of Ireland: A mare named Carnauba had been snatched in Italy in 1975 and 11-time race winner Fanfreluche grabbed in Kentucky in 1977. Both were later found alive.

Drion finally reached the Aga Khan, who told him to phone the police regardless of the criminals’ cautions. Cosgrove, meanwhile, called his friend Sean Berry, the chair of the Irish Thoroughbred Breeding Association. Berry called an Irish finance minister. By the time the situation had been routed to the police, it was early Wednesday morning, and Shergar had been potentially traveling for six hours or more.

The delayed response played directly into the gang’s plans. On Wednesday, the area was teeming with trailers, as a major horse sale was scheduled. Shergar’s captors could have easily blended into the scene. And with a number of pastures in the area, it would have been just as easy to let Shergar loiter outdoors, grouped in with hundreds of other horses. Until the kidnappers made contact, it would be almost impossible to trace them.

To make matters worse, both Dublin police and Kildare police were on the case but refusing to share information with one another.

The first call to Ballymany came at 4 p.m. the next day, on Wednesday, February 9. Ghislain Drion accepted it, and knew it was genuine because the caller used the same code, King Neptune, that had been given to Fitzgerald. By now, Drion was being coached by the Garda, who had told him to keep the caller on the line for at least 90 seconds, which would allow authorities to trace the call. Drion, who was French, pretended there was a language barrier, but the caller seemed wise to his intent and disconnected after 85 seconds. More calls followed, with the man soon insisting that he be given a number to speak to someone in Paris, where the Aga Khan had representatives, in order to negotiate further.

Shergar at his stables in Newmarket, England in 1980. Steve Powell, Allsport/Getty Images

A little later that evening, a call came into the offices of the BBC in Belfast. A man claiming to be involved in the kidnapping demanded to negotiate with three horse racing journalists: Lord Oaksey, Peter Campling, and Derek Thompson. All three were told to head to the Europa Hotel for further instruction. There, Thompson received a call telling him to drive 30 miles to a stable owned by breeder Jeremy Maxwell. He did as he was instructed, and was coached by police to perform duties similar to Drion’s—trying to maintain the call long enough for it to be traced.

Whoever Thompson spoke to on the telephone was demanding an initial payment of between $44,000 and $56,000, a paltry amount that led authorities to believe it might be a hoax. They had no choice, however, but to proceed. When Thompson finally managed to keep the man on the call for 95 seconds, he was told the officer in charge of the tap had ended his shift. It hadn’t been traced.

Both Thompson and Drion kept insisting on receiving proof Shergar was still alive. Drion managed to get the man he was speaking with to leave evidence at the Rossnaree Hotel in Dublin, though it didn’t arrive until Saturday, February 12. There, a man dispatched to retrieve it found a Polaroid of Shergar next to a newspaper from February 11, seemingly proving the horse was alive two days after being captured.

As these parallel negotiations dragged on over the week, they were hindered by one common element: The kidnappers did not appear to have accounted for the fact that Shergar was not owned solely by the Aga Khan. There were 33 other shareholders, and all of them had a say in how to proceed. Some believed giving in to the kidnappers would set a dangerous precedent that would put many valuable racehorses at risk. No one seemed able or willing to acquiesce to the ransom demand.

Both Thompson and a representative for the syndicate that owned Shergar received similar final calls. Thompson’s came first, at roughly 6:55 a.m. on Thursday, February 10, saying that the horse had suffered an accident and was dead. Another call was received by the syndicate negotiator, who had taken over for Drion, shortly after the Polaroid had been retrieved on February 12. After the negotiator said the shareholders were not yet satisfied and hadn't come to a conclusion, the caller grew cold. “Well, if you're not satisfied, that's it,” he said, and hung up. No more calls were made.

It would be several years before Ireland knew of Shergar’s likely fate.

 

From the beginning, it seemed that the Irish Republican Army, or IRA, was responsible for Shergar’s theft. Some speculated that the IRA, in need of funds to arm themselves in the midst of the Troubles—the 30-year conflict over the status of Northern Ireland—had turned to the lucrative world of horse racing and taken off with Shergar just before breeding season began. But that didn’t prevent other theories from emerging.

Shergar being groomed at his stables in Newmarket, England in 1980. Steve Powell, Allsport/Getty Images

Some believed the mafia had somehow orchestrated the crime. Others thought Colonel Gaddafi of Libya had held the horse in exchange for arms for the IRA. A Kentucky breeder named Wayne Murty was named in Irish newspapers, the idea being that the Aga Khan had won a court ruling over a contentious bidding war for 56 valuable breeding horses and this was his revenge.

None, however, made as much sense as the IRA. The militant group never took responsibility for the act, but the pieces appeared to line up.

In the late 1990s, a former IRA member and police informant named Sean O’Callaghan admitted in a book that an IRA leader named Kevin Mallon had planned the horse heist. Another former IRA member who spoke with The Telegraph in 2008 claimed the idea had quickly gone off the rails when a veterinarian the IRA had been counting on to take care of Shergar backed out of the deal, leaving them with no real guidance on how to handle him. Shergar, having been on a diet and exercise regimen to promote virility, was likely excitable. It’s possible he hurt himself, or, according to The Telegraph's source, it may have been that Mallon realized he wasn’t going to get the ransom. Either way, The Telegraph's source says Shergar was shot and his remained buried in an unknown location. Shareholders who had theft insurance were paid by Lloyd’s of London. The rest took a loss.

It’s never been conclusively proven that the IRA was involved. The fact that they never claimed responsibility means little—Shergar was an icon in Ireland, and admitting culpability in his demise probably seemed unwise even for a militant group. IRA sympathizers, let alone anyone else, would likely not receive the news well.

In the end, the race to find Shergar was not one that anyone was able to win. But before his demise, the champion horse did enjoy a full season of breeding. Of his 35 offspring, 28 raced, and 15 were winners.

10 Rad Gifts for Hikers

Greg Rosenke/Unsplash
Greg Rosenke/Unsplash

The popularity of bird-watching, camping, and hiking has skyrocketed this year. Whether your gift recipients are weekend warriors or seasoned dirtbags, they'll appreciate these tools and gear for getting most out of their hiking experience.

1. Stanley Nesting Two-Cup Cookset; $14

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Stanley’s compact and lightweight cookset includes a 20-ounce stainless steel pot with a locking handle, a vented lid, and two insulated 10-ounce tumblers. It’s the perfect size for brewing hot coffee, rehydrating soup, or boiling water while out on the trail with a buddy. And as some hardcore backpackers note in their Amazon reviews, your favorite hiker can take the tumblers out and stuff the pot with a camp stove, matches, and other necessities to make good use of space in their pack.

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2. Osprey Sirrus and Stratos 24-Liter Hiking Packs; $140

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Osprey’s packs are designed with trail-tested details to maximize comfort and ease of use. The Sirrus pack (pictured) is sized for women, while the Stratos fits men’s proportions. Both include an internal sleeve for a hydration reservoir, exterior mesh and hipbelt pockets, an attachment for carrying trekking poles, and a built-in rain cover.

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Nothing beats ice-cold water after a summer hike or a sip of hot tea during a winter walk. The Yeti Rambler can serve up both: Beverages can stay hot or cold for hours thanks to its insulated construction, and its steel body (in a variety of colors) is basically indestructible. It will add weight to your hiker's pack, though—for a lighter-weight, non-insulated option, the tried-and-true Camelbak Chute water bottle is incredibly sturdy and leakproof.

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4. Mappinners Greatest 100 Hikes of the National Parks Scratch-Off Poster; $30

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The perfect gift for park baggers in your life (or yourself), this 16-inch-by-20-inch poster features epic hikes like Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park and Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. Once the hike is complete, you can scratch off the gold foil to reveal an illustration of the park.

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Hikers can use this brand-new, updated road atlas to plan their next adventure. In addition to comprehensive maps of all 50 states, Puerto Rico, Canada, and Mexico, they'll get National Geographic’s top 100 outdoor destinations, useful details about the most popular national parks, and points on the maps noting off-the-beaten-path places to explore.  

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6. Adventure Medical Kits Hiker First-Aid Kit; $25

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This handy 67-piece kit is stuffed with all the things you hope your hiker will never need in the wilderness. Not only does it contain supplies for pain, cuts and scrapes, burns, and blisters (every hiker’s nemesis!), the items are organized clearly in the bag to make it easy to find tweezers or an alcohol wipe in an emergency.

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Trekking poles will help increase your hiker's balance and stability and reduce strain on their lower body by distributing it to their arms and shoulders. This pair is made of carbon fiber, a super-strong and lightweight material. From the sweat-absorbing cork handles to the selection of pole tips for different terrain, these poles answer every need on the trail. 

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8. Leatherman Signal Camping Multitool; $120

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What can’t this multitool do? This gadget contains 19 hiking-friendly tools in a 4.5-inch package, including pliers, screwdrivers, bottle opener, saw, knife, hammer, wire cutter, and even an emergency whistle.

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9. RAVPower Power Bank; $24

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Don’t let your hiker get caught off the grid with a dead phone. They can charge RAVPower’s compact power bank before they head out on the trail, and then use it to quickly juice up a phone or tablet when the batteries get low. Its 3-inch-by-5-inch profile won’t take up much room in a pack or purse.

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Neither rain, nor snow, nor hail will be a match for these waterproof, tearproof 3.5-inch-by-5.5-inch notebooks. Your hiker can stick one in their pocket along with a regular pen or pencil to record details of their hike or brainstorm their next viral Tweet.

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The Time Larry David Saved a Man from the Death Penalty

HBO
HBO

In 2003, 24-year-old machinist Juan Catalan faced the death penalty for allegedly shooting a key witness in a murder case. Catalan told police that he couldn’t have committed the crime, as he was at a Los Angeles Dodgers game at the time. He had the ticket stubs and everything to prove it.

When police didn’t buy his alibi, Catalan contacted the Dodgers, who pointed him to an unlikely hero: misanthropic comedian Larry David. On the day in question, David had been filming an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm at Dodger Stadium. It was a long shot, as there were 56,000 people at the game that day, but maybe Catalan could be seen in the background. So his attorney started watching the outtakes ... and found the evidence he needed. In fact, it took just 20 minutes to find shots of Catalan and his daughter chowing down on ballpark dogs while watching from the stands.

Thanks to the footage, Catalan walked free after five months behind bars. And Larry David found one more thing to be self-deprecating about. “I tell people that I’ve done one decent thing in my life, albeit inadvertently,” David joked.

In 2017, Netflix released a short documentay, Long Shot, about the incident.