Sporting Controversies: The brutal, sad and mysterious tale of Shergar
Dark reality is of a beautiful animal being gunned to death by incompetent criminals
Shergar with the Aga Khan after winning the 1981 Irish Derby at the Curragh. Photo: Allsport
So much is crammed into the Shergar legend that the all but certain reality of this beautiful, blameless creature dying a horrible death has become almost a footnote.
The precise nature of how Shergar was killed has never been definitively established, the same as how much of what happened to the record-breaking Derby winner in the days after his kidnap from the Aga Khan’s Ballymany Stud outside Newbridge on February 8th, 1983, remains unclear.
Some even choose to still cling to the comfort that he might not have been killed at all and instead somehow shipped out of the country to live out his days in luxury as a stallion at some mad sheikh’s desert oasis.
It’s a nice thought but unconvincing in comparison to more lurid versions of how the most famous horse of modern times ultimately met his fate. None makes for consolation, especially how the horse had to be shot after breaking a leg shortly after his theft.
A source outlined in a newspaper report over a decade ago – “Shergar was machine gunned to death. There was blood everywhere and the horse even slipped on his own blood. There was lots of cussin’ and swearin’ because the horse wouldn’t die.”
No one has officially admitted to doing the shooting. Almost everyone accepts though it was the IRA, just as it is generally accepted that a gang hopelessly ill-equipped to handle a thoroughbred stallion eventually dumped his carcass in a Co Leitrim bog.
Considering the grim toll of terrorist violence in Ireland throughout the decades before, during and afterwards, there’s a necessary context to the wretched killing of a dumb animal.
As everyone now faces the frightening arbitrary reality of a global health crisis, dwelling on such events, no matter what the prestige and value of the animal involved, can even seem indulgent. But there’s also no ignoring how the Shergar story still holds a terrible lure.
Nearly four decades after his death his name remains instantly recognisable.
Assured of a place in racing history through his momentous run of success in the summer of 1981, it is also Shergar’s dubious privilege to live on in the popular consciousness. Often it’s as a punchline. But so too, still, as a stain on the country’s reputation.
Such a claim might have sounded too much for some even at the time. The kidnapping was dramatic and regrettable and fascinating enough to command global headlines. But at a time when Ireland was Europe’s ‘sick man’, plenty had more pressing priorities than contemplating national honour.
That’s because throughout the grim 1980’s Ireland was an economic and social basket-case.
Success in racing is inextricably tied up with wealth so inevitably some of racing’s richest names had bought into Shergar
Double-digit unemployment figures and skyhigh taxation produced a generation for export. Those that didn’t go stayed in a priest-ridden cultural backwater where even the contraceptives necessary to fight the AIDS epidemic were outlawed. Even much of the music seemed to be doleful crap.
The overarching backdrop to all of it – a dismal soundtrack to more than one generation – was daily evidence of this island’s capacity for vicious sectarianism and the inability to peer beyond fundamentalist tribal hatreds.
So in comparison the kidnap and killing of a thoroughbred could, and perhaps should, have been trivial. Except it wasn’t. Far from it in fact. For many it was a matter of mortifying embarrassment.
Maybe that says something about skewed perspectives. There’s something grotesque about so many victim’s names from The Troubles being mostly forgotten and Shergar’s still vividly recalled. But this country’s relationship with the thoroughbred has always been different to elsewhere.
This racing-mad young teenager was aghast when told of the kidnap by my mother waking us for school. It was almost beyond comprehension. The adolescent reaction was to ask what poor old Shergar had done to deserve this. And why would any bastard want to do it.
The answer of course was money. The IRA demanded £2 million for the horse’s return. Success in racing is inextricably tied up with wealth so inevitably some of racing’s richest names had bought into Shergar at the start of a stud career that valued him at £10 million.
But in the days and weeks that followed it wasn’t just kids who dealt with jumbled confused considerations other than money.
Shergar had been a rare flat racehorse to transcend the sport. Before the kidnap his was a household name anyway. That’s because he didn’t just win: he won with style and by distance.
Under his cherubic 19-year-old jockey Walter ‘The Choirboy’ Swinburn, Shergar won his first Derby trial race by ten lengths. It memorably prompted the Guardian’s racing correspondent to urge readers to “bet like men” for the Derby. Shergar won his second trial by a dozen lengths.
At a time when Lester Piggott’s widely-copied modus operandi was to win as conservatively as possible, Swinburn and his scampering bay partner with the broad blaze and four white socks represented joyful and unabashed flamboyance.
That Shergar raced with his tongue lolling out even looked like a cheeky dismissal of convention.
Mafia links to New Orleans were speculated on. The Libyan leader Colonel Gadafi was supposedly behind the plot
Sure enough he lived up to his billing at Epsom, winning by ten lengths with Swinburn easing him up for the final 100 metres. The young jockey was suspended for the Irish Derby and Piggott replaced him for a sauntering success just a few hundred yards from Shergar’s birthplace at Ballymany.
A month later the three-year-old sensation beat older horses at his ease in the King George and if his only other race was a scarcely believable reverse he’d already made an indelible impression of towering athletic talent expressed in all of racing’s magnificently trivial and frothy excitement.
It was a joy, colour and glamour sorely lacking in most of Ireland in the early 80’s.
So when Shergar’s owner-breeder, the Aga Khan, declined huge offers for the colt from America, opting instead to syndicate him in Ireland, it felt like more than another wealthy owner availing of tax-free stallion revenue status.
Instead it seemed a stamp of approval as to how the country could still do at least one thing very well.
Of course there’s a danger in projecting too much into this. But it would be disingenuous to pretend it didn’t contain a peculiar resonance too. And somehow such an expression of faith managed to get cocked-up.
It certainly became more than about ‘just a horse.’ The febrile political climate alone made sure of that after February 8th.
Cross-channel coverage of the Garda’s attempts to track down the kidnappers was laced with everything from cod-Irish cartoons to unambiguous contempt.
The hunt for the horse was led by Chief Superintendent Jim Murphy, nicknamed ‘Spud.’ In the absence of much actual information the local police officer inevitably became the focus of media attention, provoking another more uncomplimentary sobriquet, ‘Inspector Clouseau.’
It was an unenviable lot for Murphy who when asked once about possible clues, memorably admitted: “A clue? That is something we haven’t got.”
The bizarre atmosphere throughout the fruitless search included blind-alley negotiations that contained crime-caper passwords which at one point included ‘Johnny Logan.’ The police admitting they were working with diviners and clairvoyants meant it was open season for Keystone Cop puns.
Much of the criticism was unjust. For one thing the kidnappers had a huge headstart that even Shergar in his pomp would have struggled to make up.
On the night of the kidnap it was almost four hours before the Aga Khan’s manager was informed of what had happened. Rather than ring the police his first reaction was to ring his boss in Switzerland. Various other figures got contacted that night, including the then Minister for Finance, and local TD, Alan Dukes, who would deliver a budget speech to the Dáil some hours later.
Shergar had been loaded onto the kidnapper’s horse box before nine in the evening. It was over seven hours later before the Garda were called. That was more than enough time for the world’s most famous racehorse to disappear forever.
The delay in contacting the authorities looks inexplicable now. But such an event was unheard of. Confusion reigned. Nowadays the country’s most prestigious farms are mini-fortresses. In 1983 closing the stable door even after the horse had bolted didn’t seem a priority.
Over the years various conspiracy theories sprouted briefly before their credibility quickly withered.
Mafia links to New Orleans were speculated on. The Libyan leader Colonel Gadafi was supposedly behind the plot. They were all far-fetched in comparison to the pattern of other kidnappings carried out by the cash-strapped IRA at that time.
There’s a lot of bog in Leitrim and the border’s ‘omerta’ culture means no leaks have emerged to help pinpoint any search
The organisation has never formally admitted it but in 2018 a former member, Kieran Conway, admitted “clearly it was. I didn’t personally meet anybody who objected to us kidnapping a horse.”
Others have said that Shergar was dead within a matter of days of his kidnap. Renowned as placid colt during his racing career, as a mature five-year-old stallion he was still not a proposition that even an experienced horse-person would take for granted.
Brutal and wasteful
For the gang to have stolen such a horse without knowing how to handle him properly is as stupid as thoughts of his death are cruel.
There’s little that is edifying about the Shergar tale. It’s mostly just brutal and wasteful and sad. However it immediately grabbed the public imagination. Some years afterwards a less adolescent me helped to drop off some mares at Ballymany. As we pulled in the horsebox driver said “that’s where he was.” There was no need to put a name on the “he”.
The fact he was never seen again probably contributes to continuing public fascination. There’s a lot of bog in Leitrim and the border’s ‘omerta’ culture means no leaks have emerged to help pinpoint any search.
Considering how that “say nothing” culture has helped allow sinister outrages against people go unpunished, it probably doesn’t really matter now about where a long-dead animal ended up.
There still feels something very wrong about it however. Take away the money, intrigue, conspiracies and speculation and you’re left with the dark reality of a beautiful animal being machine-gunned to death by gangsters too stupid and incompetent to look after him properly.
Ireland’s history contains a lot worse. But Shergar’s sorry fate still feels mortifying.