"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, November 21, 2016

The Kidnapping of a Champion

While high-profile kidnappings of animals are less frequent than human abductions, they happen more frequently than you might think. Arguably the most famous example is the unsolved disappearance of the magnificent racehorse Shergar.

As a three-year-old in 1981, he won one of the most illustrious races in the world, the Epsom Derby, by 10 lengths--a record winning margin for the event. Later that year, he was named European Horse of the Year, and was retired to stud, where his connections--as well as race fans--earnestly hoped he might duplicate his success on the racetrack in the breeding shed. He was acclaimed as one of the greatest equines of the century.

Shergar was sent to Ballymany Stud farm in his native Ireland. He was not only an intelligent horse, but gentle and good-natured, so he was adjusting well to his new routine. There was no reason to suspect he had anything but a long, placid life ahead of him.

On February 8, 1983, those expectations went horribly, shockingly wrong.

It was a blustery, icy-cold day, so Shergar was kept inside his heated stable for most of the day. After a brief run in his paddock, the horse's 58-year-old "stable boy," Jim Fitzgerald, brought Shergar back to his shed and returned to his house on the farm's grounds, locking the main door of the stable behind him, as always. All was quiet.

No one was around to see a strange car enter Ballymany's main gate, which had been left unguarded on this wickedly cold, foggy, snowy night. Fitzgerald was completely unprepared when he heard a knock on his door. His son, Bernard, opened the door. A masked stranger asked him, "Is the boss in?" Then, without warning, the intruder delivered a blow to the young man's head that left him flat on the floor. Fitzgerald rushed into the room, only to see the man pointing a pistol at him.

Other masked men--Fitzgerald later thought it was eight or so of them--suddenly entered the house, as well. The gunman told him, "We've come for Shergar, and we want £2m for him. Call the police and he's dead."

Fitzgerald was led at gunpoint to Shergar's stable. They forced him to put tack on the horse, and they led the unsuspecting animal to their waiting truck, and drove off with him.  Some of the kidnappers stayed behind, where they trained guns at Fitzgerald's family for several hours. Fitzgerald was shoved into a second vehicle and driven around for three hours before being tossed out on to the road, with a warning not to call police.

The hunt for the prized stallion began with a bizarre game of "Telephone." Fitzgerald reported the crime, not to the police, but to the stud farm's manager, Ghislain Drion. Drion then called Shergar's vet. The vet called a friend, who in his turn called the Irish Finance Minister. This official then contacted the Minister for Justice. It was not until eight hours after Shergar was taken away that anyone thought to inform law enforcement that they had a particularly weird abduction on their hands.

The crime seemed a complete mystery. No one had any clues who had committed this unprecedented and peculiarly revolting crime, let alone any indication of where Shergar could be. People claiming to be the kidnappers eventually contacted several racing journalists, as well as one of the horse's owners, the Aga Khan, to relay their ransom demands. These moves toward negotiation came to nothing. The horse's syndicate never had any intention of paying a dime, reasoning that if they had given in to the criminals' demands, no valuable racehorse in the world would be safe. The BBC and the Irish racehorse trainer Jeremy Maxwell also received anonymous phone calls claiming that Shergar had suffered an "accident" which required him to be euthanized, but authorities suspected the calls were a sick hoax.  After four days, the alleged kidnappers simply stopped calling. And no one for certain has ever seen Shergar--alive or dead--since.

The kidnapping remained an utterly cold case until 1992, when an imprisoned Irish Republican Army leader-turned-informer, Sean O'Callaghan, told the world what had happened to Shergar.

According to O'Callaghan, another IRA member, Kevin Mallon, was given the job of stealing the horse. The plan was merely to hold Shergar for a great deal of money to pay for arms and other expenses. After the ransom was paid, the horse would be returned.

The plan quickly proved disastrous. O'Callaghan said Mallon told him that Shergar, in unfamiliar surroundings and in the hands of inept thugs, became so hysterical that his kidnappers were unable to handle him. In a panic--and quite scared of this huge, dangerously high-strung creature--the terrorists lost their heads completely and machine-gunned their frenzied captive. According to O'Callaghan, this pampered, noble animal died a particularly slow, agonizing death.

The story goes that the IRA gang dug a large pit in the remote mountains near Ballinamore, about a hundred miles from Ballymany. Then, Shergar's corpse was dumped in this hasty, unmarked grave.

This depressing story is considered the most probable explanation for Shergar's disappearance, but it has never been proven. For what it's worth, the IRA has never claimed responsibility for the theft, and O'Callaghan, like many professional rats, has shown himself to be chronically unreliable.

For years after Shergar vanished, there were numerous "sightings" of him reported all over the world. To this day, there are still racetrack folk who say that his kidnappers, once they realized the impossibility of collecting a ransom, merely turned him out to live "incognito" at some private farm or another.

One would certainly like to think this is what happened.

Whatever Shergar's fate may have been, his kidnapping was one of those crimes as utterly pointless as it was cruel. The thieves themselves--whoever they were--never profited from their crime. The companies who had insured the horse refused to pay Shergar's owners, on the grounds that it was never established that the champion was dead. Only those few members of the 34-member syndicate who insured him against theft received any compensation--about $10.6 million, according to Lloyd's.

When talking to a writer for the "Daily Telegraph" in 2008, Jim Fitzgerald still became teary-eyed when remembering the horse he had known and loved so well. "Shergar was a grand horse," he said. "He deserved better."

That is all anyone can say with any certainty about the matter.


  1. That is one reason horse thieves should be strung up.

  2. Most terrorist organizations are just low-class criminals cloaked in ideology. Usually, the innocent victims not only suffer but are forgotten. At least Shergar won't be.

  3. Still one of the most compelling unsolved mysteries of the last century. I went to visit the farm a few years after the kidnapping. People were still haunted. I bet they are to this day. Thanks for the great synopsis! I'll never forget that horse.


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