Shergar's Mysterious Disappearance

The kidnapping of champion racehorse Shergar remains one of Britain’s most baffling whodunnits. For two decades, the disappearance of the celebrated Derby winner has been shrouded in a fog of mystery and conspiracy theories. 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. 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 being ridden by Walter Swinburn

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.

On February 8, 1983, armed men burst into Shergar’s stable in Ballymany, County Kildare, and forced head groom Jim Fitzgerald to load the horse onto a vehicle, which was then towed away. Shergar was never seen again. Days later, Fitzgerald received an anonymous ransom demand of £2 million for the safe return of the champion wonder horse. 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. But Shergar’s primary owner, the Aga Khan, refused to give in for fear of setting a precedent in the sport. Shergar’s vet, Stan Cosgrove, believes the kidnappers made the mistake of thinking that the Aga Khan was the sole owner of the horse and would be only too willing to part with his millions. In fact, Shergar was owned by thirty-four separate individuals in a syndicate, most of whom had no intention of paying up. 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. A former gunman with the Irish Republican Army (IRA) recently confessed that the IRA was behind the bungled kidnapping, but the group has never accepted responsibility for the crime. Even so, Shergar was taken at the height of the IRA’s military campaign against the British, and at a time when it was desperate for funds to buy weapons. Given its plight at the time, a theft of such magnitude seems far from implausible.

Over the last twenty years there have been numerous reported sightings of Shergar, but none have proved conclusive. Some claim to have seen him racing in Libya, others believe that gunrunners took him to Marseille. Conspiracy theories abound, too, concerning Mafia involvement. Shergar’s kidnapping remains one of the greatest mysteries of the 1980s. To this day, no body has been found. The case remains open.

(Sources : Conspiracy Theories by Kate Tuckett; and Wikipedia)
(Pics sources :;


  1. It would be nice to think that Shergar lived a long and happy life in a remote farm field somewhere but I have a suspicion that a dog food or glue factory may be involved in the "conspiracy" somewhere along the way. Kidnapping a horse mus be one of the most stupid ideas in history - unless it was to save the bookies a fortune.

  2. It would be nice, wouldn't it? But having worked in horseracing and seen the callous way that a horse is treated like a champion after a win and a dog after a loss, and sound horses who just don't run fast enough are sent to a "plug" track without a second thought...I knew a British stallion of excellent breeding that ran for $1oo,ooo claiming tags,who disappeared overnight. Miraculously I found him, nine years later on a small farm several states away .The owners had claimed him for $3,200 a few years earlier and had no idea what he had been. I was going to start a farm for retired racehorses. I had a list of 83 horses,many I had known personally. Out of 83 I found 2.The stallion I mentioned and another who I found in Canada but he had died recently of a heart attack post breeding. When I gave my list around the track no one would even look at it. It is a business of shame.Run on the lives of innocent and truly helpless creatures.I would not be surprised at all if one day we find out that Shergar's owners planned the whole thing for insurance money or publicity for his stud fees,etc. They probably also sold the rights to the producers who made that highly dramatized movie about him several years ago.I doubt any of us will ever know the truth.Horses can't talk but if they could what stories they would tell.Perhaps that's what they who took him were afraid of.Which shows how stupid people are.


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