A Racehorse Ransom: The Horsenapping of Shergar
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.
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.
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.
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.