Thirty years ago as an RTÉ television news reporter I stood outside the gates at the main entrance to Ballymany Stud owned by the Aga Khan near The Curragh in County Kildare on the trail of the racehorse Shergar. He still hasn’t turned up, although there are many rumours about his fate. It became one of the most famous cases in the world of an animal being kidnapped. The 1981 Derby winner was taken from his box by a group of armed men on February 8th 1983.
Shergar was a celebrity in his own right and was beginning his second year out to stud. Three armed men wearing masks entered the grounds in a car with a horse trailer attached and then threatened the head groom Jim Fitzgerald and his family. Gardaí at Naas led by trilby-wearing Chief Superintendent Jim “Spud” Murphy immediately began an investigation into the whereabouts of the famous stallion. Several different ransom demands were made but the identity of the thieves has never been discovered, nor has the last resting place of Shergar. There have been plenty of theories about the group responsible. One suggestion is that it was an IRA gang intent on raising money to buy arms and that when they bundled the five year-old horse into the trailer he became excitable and unmanageable so the gang decided to shoot him. But the paramilitary group never claimed any connection. The story became international news and remains so today, for example on CNN.
The video of my piece to camera outside the stud keeps re-appearing in the RTÉ series “Reeling in the Years” and other programmes such as Mario Rosenstock’s “Twenty Moments that Shook Irish Sport” in 2007 (video link here at 1:17). If I was on commission for each time it was played, I would probably be a rich man by now!
Shergar: a racing legend, an IRA kidnap & ransom, a bungled investigation and an enduring myth.
Shergar was an acclaimed racehorse. Winner of the 1981 Epsom Derby by a record ten lengths, he was named European horse of the year that same year and retired from racing that September. Two years later, on the 8th of February, he was kidnapped from Ballymany Stud, near the Curragh. Despite a massive hunt and with the country gripped by Shergar-fever, the horse was never found. It is believed the IRA unit who kidnapped him killed him a few days later when negotiations for a two million pounds sterling ransom collapsed. However, to this day, Shergar’s remains have never been found and his disappearance has been one of the greatest myths of recent Irish times.
The story was also the subject of a film, made on the Isle of Man in 1998 and released the following year. It starred Sir Ian Holm, Mickey Rourke, David Warner and Gary Cady. My cousin in Belfast the photographer Phil Smyth has just reminded me that he saw the film when he was in Sydney, Australia, and that it used the news report with my piece to camera in it!