Searching for Shergar: Accidental BBC comedy about the kidnapping of a horse

Review: Documentary with a thriller soundtrack, a hushed voiceover, but no new leads

The Begum Aga Khan with Shergar in 1981 after his victory in the Irish Sweeps Derby at the Curragh. Photograph: Paddy Whelan

The Begum Aga Khan with Shergar in 1981 after his victory in the Irish Sweeps Derby at the Curragh. Photograph: Paddy Whelan

 

In 1980s Ireland, Shergar was a horse, of course, and an exceptional one. In 1981, the racing stallion won the English and the Irish Derby, shaming the competition and becoming a national hero.

Retiring soon after, he was set to be the most expensive stud in history, worth £10 million, “covering 44 mares at a staggering £80,000 a time” in his first breeding season. (That would make anyone stagger.)

Instead, Shergar became a target. Kidnapped at gunpoint and held to ransom, the horse was never seen again, forever fixed in the national imagination not as a race winner, or a staggering hero, but as a mystery.

Thirty-five years later, filmmaker Alison Millar sets out to solve that mystery in Searching for Shergar (BBC One, Thursday, 9pm). The odds, you have to admit, are very long. Casing the “equine establishments” of Kildare, for instance, Millar reports in tones of wonder that Shergar came from a long line of horses “that are genetically engineered to perfection – thoroughbreds.”

Between the nervy thriller soundtrack and Millar’s hushed voice over, this doesn’t feel like a promising new lead.

It does help to accentuate the accidental comedy of her subject, though. Millar, speaking loudly for a hard-of-hearing horsey set, allows us to see how she cajoles Shergar’s tight-lipped former vet, Stan Cosgrove, with free-flowing wine and endless flattery. (“I decided not to bring up Shergar . . . straight away,” she confides.)

Explaining how Ireland was transformed into the stud capital of Europe, a plummy bloodstock tycoon talks her through the plan: “The top mares and racing fillies would follow the semen and come to Ireland.”

Now, there’s a lead worthy of Watergate: Follow the semen.

Instead, the kidnapping of a horse becomes a way of explaining the Troubles. When former Provo Kieran Conway admits that “clearly it was” the IRA behind the farrago, it will come as a huge shock to anybody still struggling with the concept of a thoroughbred.

Otherwise, poor Shergar becomes the subject of a convoluted financial farce, as his shareholders quibble over the ransom, police investigations end up in wild horse chases, and cruel hoaxes and outrageous scams mount up.

Even James Cosgrove, Stan’s son, has to laugh at the memory of scouring the countryside for Shergar’s remains to support an insurance claim: “Where do you start?”

In Millar’s case, where do you stop? “In the absence of information, we were forced to use our imagination,” remembers the BBC’s Irish correspondent.

Millar does much the same, finally showing us a few strands of hair taken from Shergar’s tail which could be used for DNA analysis in the event that he is ever found.

I wouldn’t bet on it. As Shergar himself knows, wherever he is, that would involve going to some extraordinary lengths.