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 grounds of Ballymany Stud in Newbridge, County Kildare, Ireland, is pictured circa 1983
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 is pictured at his stables in Newmarket, England in 1980
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 is pictured being groomed at his stables in Newmarket, England in 1980
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 Wireless Chargers Designed to Make Life Easier

La Lucia/Moshi
La Lucia/Moshi

While our smart devices and gadgets are necessary in our everyday life, the worst part is the clumsy collection of cords and chargers that go along with them. Thankfully, there are more streamlined ways to keep your phone, AirPods, Apple Watch, and other electronics powered-up. Check out these 10 wireless chargers that are designed to make your life convenient and connected.

1. Otto Q Wireless Fast Charging Pad; $40

Otto Q Wireless Fast Charging Pad
Moshi

Touted as one of the world's fastest chargers, this wireless model from Moshi is ideal for anyone looking to power-up their phone or AirPods in a hurry. It sports a soft, cushioned design and features a proprietary Q-coil module that allows it to charge through a case as thick as 5mm.

Buy it: Mental Floss Shop

2. Gotek Wireless Charging Music Station; $57

Gotek Wireless Charging Music Station
Rego Tech

Consolidate your bedside table with this clock, Bluetooth 5.0 speaker, and wireless charger, all in one. It comes with a built-in radio and glossy LED display with three levels of brightness to suit your style.

Buy it: Mental Floss Shop

3. BentoStack PowerHub 5000; $100 (37 percent off)

BentoStack PowerHub 5000
Function101

This compact Apple accessory organizer will wirelessly charge, port, and store your device accessories in one compact hub. It stacks to look neat and keep you from losing another small piece of equipment.

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4. Porto Q 5K Portable Battery with Built-in Wireless Charger; $85

Porto Q 5K Portable Battery with Built-in Wireless Charger
Moshi

This wireless charger doubles as a portable battery, so when your charge dies, the backup battery will double your device’s life. Your friends will love being able to borrow a charge, too, with the easy, non-slip hook-up.

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5. 4-in-1 Versatile Wireless Charger; $41 (31 percent off)

4-in-1 Versatile Wireless Charger
La Lucia

Put all of those tangled cords to rest with this single, temperature-controlled charging stand that can work on four devices at once. It even has a built-in safeguard to protect against overcharging.

Buy it: Mental Floss Shop

6. GRAVITIS™ Wireless Car Charger; $20 (31 percent off)

GRAVITIS™ Wireless Car Charger
Origaudio

If you need to charge your phone while also using it as a GPS, this wireless device hooks right into the car’s air vent for safe visibility. Your device will be fully charged within two to three hours, making it perfect for road trips.

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7. Futura X Wireless 15W Fast Charging Pad; $35 (30 percent off)

Futura X Wireless 15W Fast Charging Pad
Bezalel

This incredibly thin, tiny charger is designed for anyone looking to declutter their desk or nightstand. Using a USB-C cord for a power source, this wireless charger features a built-in cooling system and is simple to set up—once plugged in, you just have to rest your phone on top to get it working.

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8. Apple Watch Wireless Charger Keychain; $20 (59 percent off)

Apple Watch Wireless Charger Keychain
Go Gadgets

This Apple Watch charger is all about convenience on the go. Simply attach the charger to your keys or backpack and wrap your Apple Watch around its magnetic center ring. The whole thing is small enough to be easily carried with you wherever you're traveling, whether you're commuting or out on a day trip.

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9. Wireless Charger with 30W Power Delivery & 18W Fast Charger Ports; $55 (38 percent off)

Wireless Charger from TechSmarter
TechSmarter

Fuel up to three devices at once, including a laptop, with this single unit. It can wirelessly charge or hook up to USB and USB-C to consolidate your charging station.

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10. FurniQi Bamboo Wireless Charging Side Table; $150 (24 percent off)

FurniQi Bamboo Wireless Charging Side Table
FoneSalesman

This bamboo table is actually a wireless charger—all you have to do is set your device down on the designated charging spot and you're good to go. Easy to construct and completely discreet, this is a novel way to charge your device while entertaining guests or just enjoying your morning coffee.

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Cracking Open the History of Unsolved Mysteries

Robert Stack hosts the original Unsolved Mysteries.
Robert Stack hosts the original Unsolved Mysteries.
NBC

With his steely glare and trademark trench coat, Robert Stack took viewers on a journey through tales of true crime, alien abductions, amnesia, and lost loves. It was Unsolved Mysteries, and on this week’s episode of "Throwback," host Erin McCarthy is taking us down some dark alleys to discover the origin of this classic 1990s series that’s being rebooted on Netflix. Join us.

Be sure to head here and subscribe so you don't miss an episode of "Throwback," where we explore the fascinating stories behind some of the greatest toys and trends from your childhood.