‘We’ve come for Shergar… we want two million pounds!’ The words of a gun-toting IRA gang who smashed their way into the home of the Derby winning stallion’s groom 40 years ago in a drama that ended in blood-soaked tragedy
June 1981. Shergar, ridden by the 19-year-old jockey Walter Swinburn, won the Epsom Derby in spectacular fashion with a record-breaking lead of ten lengths.
BBC commentator Peter Bromley yelled: ‘There’s only one horse in it! You need a telescope to see the rest!’
The distinctive white blaze on his face and his white socks made Shergar instantly recognisable. Win or lose, from then on he was the toast of every racecourse he graced.
Eventually, his owner, the Aga Khan, decided to retire the three-year-old to one of his Irish stud farms.
Shergar was expected to have a quiet and lucrative retirement.
The distinctive white blaze on his face and his white socks made Shergar instantly recognisable. Pictured: 1980 portrait of Shergar at his stables in Newmarket, England
BBC commentator Peter Bromley yelled: ‘There’s only one horse in it! You need a telescope to see the rest!’ Pictured: Shergar Theft – Ballymany, County Kildare, Ireland
Tuesday, Feb 8, 1983
8pm: At the Ballymany Stud, near Newbridge in County Kildare, head groom Jim Fitzgerald, 53, is checking on the horses in the stallion house before he turns in for the night. Shergar watches Jim through the bars of his stall; beneath him is a large brass plate engraved with his name and racing history.
The stallion has been fed his favourite meal of bran, dried grass, chopped carrots and apple cider. It’s the start of the breeding season and, in the next few weeks, Shergar will be servicing about 50 mares at a cost of £70,000 a covering.
It’s a moonless night but as they drive out of Ballymany, local man Stephen Dunne and his wife Alicia (who have been paying a visit to her father, who works at the stud) see three men lurking by the farm entrance. ‘Those hoors [scoundrels] are up to no good,’ Stephen says.
8.40pm: Jim Fitzgerald has made the short walk from the stallion barn to his house on the farm. He’s upstairs when he hears a car pull up. His wife Madge and three of their six children, Margaret, Bernard and John are watching TV.
There’s a knock on the door and Bernard, 21, answers. A car’s headlights blind him so he can’t make out the features of the three men at the door.
‘Is the boss man around?’ one says, and as Bernard turns to call for his father, he’s knocked to the ground.
Jim runs downstairs to find Bernard pinned to the floor by a man in a balaclava and two other masked men pointing machine guns at his family.
‘We’ve come for Shergar, we want two million pounds,’ one says. A potbellied man with a Northern Irish accent who seems to be the leader of the gang, adds: ‘I want Mr Drion’s [the stud’s French manager] number. I’ll ring tomorrow. The codeword is King Neptune.’
Jim is worried he won’t remember the codeword, so they allow him to write it down on the back of a telephone book.
8.50pm: One of the kidnappers takes Jim to the stallion barn at gunpoint where a member of the gang in a white balaclava is already waiting. He asks Jim what food Shergar eats and takes his jacket so that the stallion will be reassured by a familiar smell of the groom. It is clear this man is used to handling horses. Jim is then forced to buckle a leather halter on to Shergar and lead him to the gang’s horsebox.
The distinctive white blaze on his face and his white socks made Shergar instantly recognisable. Win or lose, from then on he was the toast of every racecourse he graced. Pictured: Chief Superintendent James Murphy at a press conference outside Newbridge Garda Station
Eventually, his owner, the Aga Khan, decided to retire the three-year-old to one of his Irish stud farms. Pictured: 1980: Shergar is groomed in his stable at Newmarket, England
9pm: The horsebox pulls away from the stallion barn. The kidnappers have timed their operation well, as there is a major horse sale near by and so their horsebox will be just one of dozens on the surrounding roads.
Jim is led back to the house, where his family is being guarded by two of the gang. The Northern Irish gunman, who is sniffing constantly as he has a cold, asks for a glass of water.
10pm: Jim Fitzgerald is bundled into the back of a van and forced to lie face down covered by a coat. ‘There were two men in the back with me,’ Fitzgerald remembered. ‘One was terribly aggressive, waving his gun; he was not a bit nice. The other one was nicer to me; perhaps he knew my position. A lot of things went through my mind. I wondered if I would get out alive. It must have been frightening for him [Shergar] as well.’
Two of the gang stay behind to watch Jim’s family, who are told: ‘Don’t do anything and your daddy will be back.’
10.40pm: The van stops outside the village of Kildock, about 30 miles north-east of Ballymany. The gunmen tell Jim once again that they want £2 million. ‘Start walking. Don’t turn around and don’t call the police.’
Jim recalled: ‘I can tell you, I didn’t look around once.’ By dumping him far from home, the kidnappers have guaranteed they will have a head start on the Garda — the Irish police.
11pm: A Chinese takeaway in Kildock gives Jim change to make a call from a phone box. He asks his brother Des, who also works at Ballymany, to get him.
When Jim and Des reach a petrol station near the stud farm, he asks Des to drop him off, as he wants to walk the rest of the way home to clear his head. Jim is terrified his family will have been harmed but they are safe, though frightened.
Shergar was expected to have a quiet and lucrative retirement. Pictured: Jun 1981: Shergar 10 lengths clear beats the rest of the field to win the Derby at Epsom racecourse in Epsom, England
At the Ballymany Stud, near Newbridge in County Kildare, head groom Jim Fitzgerald, 53, is checking on the horses in the stallion house before he turns in for the night. Pictured: Estate of where Shergar stayed
Wednesday, Feb 9
1.15am: Jim phones Ghislain Drion, the manager of the Aga Khan’s Irish studs, who immediately drives the short distance from his home to Ballymany. Jim pleads with him not to tell the police.
Ghislain telephones the Aga Khan for instructions but can’t get through, so he then calls Stan Cosgrove, a vet who looks after Shergar.
‘I thought it was April 1,’ he said. Cosgrove comes over to the farm to see for himself that the horse really has been taken. Four hours after the kidnapping, the police have still not been informed. The gang have got clean away.
3am: Ghislain Drion has got through to the Aga Khan and he asks him if he should pay the ransom and recover the horse without alerting the police. The Aga Khan believes that if a ransom is paid, it places all his horses at risk.
Ghislain is told to contact the authorities and so he calls Alan Dukes, the local MP and government Finance Minister, but as he has his very first budget to deliver the next day, he is not interested in a missing horse.
He passes the buck to the Justice Minister Michael Noonan, who in turn calls the police. What the kidnappers don’t know is that the Aga Khan is no longer the sole owner of Shergar. The horse has been syndicated for £10 million, with 40 shares worth £250,000 each, only six of which are held by the Aga Khan.
4.05am: Inspector Senan Keogh, who lives a short distance from Ballymany, is informed about the kidnapping. Shergar has now been missing for seven hours.
When Keogh arrives at the stud, Jim Fitzgerald is furious the police have been alerted, as he is terrified his family will be now harmed. The Garda later criticise Jim for not alerting them; Chief Superintendent John Courtney tells the Press: ‘It was the most foolish thing that ever was done. We could have had the opportunity to set up roadblocks, but it was too late.’
10am: The kidnappers make contact and call Ghislain Drion’s home. His wife answers and tells the anonymous caller to ring the Ballymany Stud.
Meanwhile, the members of the syndicate are being contacted to discover if they think the ransom should be paid. The task is proving difficult, as they are scattered across nine countries.
The Irish government led by Dr Garret FitzGerald make it clear that they will not comply with the kidnappers’ demands.
Horse breeders have flocked to Ireland lured by his government’s generous tax breaks.
FitzGerald says that the interests of those connected with the bloodstock business must be defended at all costs.
Shergar watches Jim through the bars of his stall; beneath him is a large brass plate engraved with his name and racing history
The stallion has been fed his favourite meal of bran, dried grass, chopped carrots and apple cider. Pictured: 1980: Shergar with Aga Khan (centre) after winning the Irish Derby at The Curragh racecourse near Newbridge, County Kildare, Ireland
4.05pm: One of the kidnappers finally calls the Ballymany Stud and speaks to Ghislain Drion, but the manager has such a strong French accent that the anonymous caller can’t understand him and Ghislain, in turn, can’t understand the kidnapper, who hangs up in frustration.
The 34 members of the syndicate are being contacted — some believe the ransom should be paid, others refuse to deal with criminals.
The syndicate’s report into the kidnapping says later: ‘Individual positions were complicated by insurance arrangements and the prospect of greater or lesser loss depending on those arrangements.’
5.45pm: The kidnapper calls Ballymany again and this time Ghislain Drion tells him to speak slowly. The man gives the codeword ‘King Neptune’, asks for the number of the Aga Khan’s office in Paris and repeats the demand for £2 million in return for Shergar.
News of the kidnapping of Shergar leaks out. There is immediate speculation on the radio and television as to who the kidnappers might be; some suspect the IRA, others a Mafia gang with a vendetta against the Aga Khan over a horse deal that went wrong.
8.30pm: Three British horseracing journalists, Peter Campling, John Oaksey and Derek Thompson, arrive at the home near Belfast of trainer Jeremy Maxwell and his wife Judy.
The Maxwells received a call earlier in the day claiming to be from Shergar’s kidnappers, demanding a ransom of £40,000 and saying that they would only negotiate with the three journalists. They wait for the kidnappers to call. The Garda make an appeal to farmers to check their fields and barns for the missing horse.
9pm: Press and TV crews from around the world are now besieging Ballymany. Chief Superintendent James Murphy is heading the inquiry into Shergar’s kidnapping. Murphy had previously successfully negotiated the release of a Dutch industrialist who had been kidnapped by the IRA.
In a distinctive trilby hat, and thanks to statements such as: ‘A clue? That’s something we haven’t got’, Murphy soon becomes a comic figure.
Thursday, Feb 10
1.30am: At Jeremy Maxwell’s home, Derek Thompson is keeping a man on the phone who claims to be holding Shergar as long as possible so the call can be traced. But after a two-minute conversation, Thompson is told by a policeman: ‘I’m sorry to say the officer who traces calls went off shift at midnight.’
It’s the start of the breeding season and, in the next few weeks, Shergar will be servicing about 50 mares at a cost of £70,000 a covering. Pictured: Shergar grazes in a field in England
It’s a moonless night but as they drive out of Ballymany, local man Stephen Dunne and his wife Alicia (who have been paying a visit to her father, who works at the stud) see three men lurking by the farm entrance. Pictured: Shergar’s groom Jim Fitzgerald, with his framed picture of Shergar
8am: The Daily Mail headline this morning is ‘Hunt For The Super-Horse: Armed kidnappers demand £2 m ranson for Shergar’.
The phone rings again at the Maxwells’ house. Derek Thompson is told bluntly: ‘The horse has had an accident. He’s dead.’
Thompson then tells the Press waiting outside: ‘I would think in all honesty that negotiations here are over for the time being, judging by what the guy said on the phone.’
Later, the police conclude that the calls to the Maxwells were from the real kidnappers, and the deliberate involvement of the three journalists was a way of laying a false trail.
2pm: Jim Fitzgerald speaks to a reporter from an Irish newspaper with a message for Shergar’s kidnappers: ‘Give him some carrots. They are his favourite food and will cheer him up.’
In order to protect his family, Jim is still giving the police only the bare facts about the night Shergar was taken. He and other horse experts are becoming concerned about Shergar’s welfare. They know that a stallion in stud season will be difficult to control.
There is public dismay in Britain and Ireland at the disappearance of such a beloved horse. The Irish Bloodstock Breeders’ Association offers a £100,000 reward for the return of Shergar, and the Sporting Life racing newspaper offers £10,000.
9pm: A kidnapper describing himself as ‘King Neptune’ calls the Aga Khan’s office in Paris and speaks to one of his representatives. The kidnapper is using a public phone box and has brought a pile of 10p pieces which he feeds into the slot every 15 seconds.
‘When will you have the money?’ he asks. The representative replies: ‘We have to have the agreement of the shareholders. We have to have proof that the horse . . .’
The kidnapper interrupts: ‘When? When? When? You’re wasting time!’ After the pips go, the representative says: ‘We have no proof you are the person holding the horse.’
The kidnapper promises that proof will be provided that Shergar is alive and then ends the call saying: ‘Whenever you get the proof we want the money within three hours, or the horse is dead.’
Jim Fitzgerald has made the short walk from the stallion barn to his house on the farm. Pictured: A Garda Officer on duty in the grounds of Ballymany Stud Farm, Newbridge, County Kildare where the horse Shergar was taken from
Friday, Feb 11
8am: Chief Superintendent James Murphy’s office is being inundated with calls from the public. A clairvoyant claims to have had a dream in which a terrified Shergar is in the cargo hold of a plane bound for the Middle East; a farmer in County Clare says he is sure the horse is in a field near his home. Meanwhile, on both sides of the border, Army and police forces are searching for Shergar.
10pm: ‘King Neptune’ rings the Aga Khan’s Paris office. Sitting alongside the negotiator is a Garda detective who reports directly to Chief Superintendent Murphy.
The detective wants the negotiator to deliberately frustrate the kidnappers so that they become so exasperated they release Shergar.
‘King Neptune’ says that proof has been left at the Crofton Airport Hotel near Dublin and that someone ‘clean’ with no connection to the Ballymany Stud should ask the receptionist for a message for Johnny Logan (Ireland’s 1980 Eurovision Song Contest winner) and proof will then be handed over.
Saturday, Feb 11
9am: Armed Irish Special Branch police officers are staking out the Crofton Airport Hotel as Shergar’s vet Stan Cosgrove walks in and gives the name ‘Johnny Logan’ to the receptionist, who says that there is no message for him. Cosgrove, who is one of shareholders with a stake in Shergar, has a breakfast in the hotel while he waits.
Ninety minutes later he decides to leave and, on the way out, he gives the receptionist the number of the Ballymany stud: ‘If anyone should call.’
11.15am: A kidnapper phones the Paris office and says no proof was left at the hotel as the police were spotted outside — and he was furious Cosgrove was used: ‘It’s very bad looking that you had someone who left the number of the stud. We told you — nothing to do with the stud!’
3.13pm: The kidnapper calls back saying that despite the fact they know the negotiator is deliberately stalling, proof will be left at a different hotel — this time the Rosnaree on the Belfast to Dublin road.
He demands that no police are involved and is clearly losing patience: ‘We’re fed up with being messed around!’
5pm: There is a further call from ‘King Neptune’ demanding that the money be paid immediately. The negotiator says: ‘I told you, I have to get the agreement of the shareholders.’ King Neptune replies: ‘That’s bull*** *. . . if we have to kill this horse, it’ll be you that killed him.’
Meanwhile, a plain-clothes detective goes into the Rosnaree Hotel and picks up an envelope for ‘Johnny Logan’.
He’s upstairs when he hears a car pull up. His wife Madge and three of their six children, Margaret, Bernard and John are watching TV. Pictured: Doncaster Shergar ridden by Walter Swinburn is paraded before the race in 1981
There’s a knock on the door and Bernard, 21, answers. A car’s headlights blind him so he can’t make out the features of the three men at the door. Pictured: Sign for Ballymany Stud Farm
It contains Polaroid photographs of a horse’s head. Some pictures include a shot of the Irish News, dated February 11.
Vet Stan Cosgrove confirms it is Shergar, but he isn’t convinced the stallion is still alive.
10.40pm: The kidnappers call for the fourth time that day and ask: ‘Have you the money?’ The Aga Khan’s representative says: ‘Mr Drion is not satisfied with the proof and I’m sure the shareholders will not be satisfied with it.’
The kidnapper says angrily: ‘If you’re not satisfied, that’s it.’ No one hears from the gang again.
Five years after Shergar’s disappearance, an IRA supergrass named Sean O’Callaghan claims that the kidnap was planned by IRA paramilitary leader Kevin Mallon, an accusation he denies.
O’Callaghan said the IRA were almost bankrupt and desperate for funds to finance their operations and that one of the gang members named Gerry Fitzgerald told him that soon after the kidnap, Shergar had panicked and injured his left leg and was then shot.
A newspaper investigation (by the Sunday Telegraph) claims that an IRA source says Sean O’Callaghan had not been told the full story of Shergar’s final hours because they were ‘too embarrassed’.
A few days after the kidnap, the IRA gang realised that they were not going to get a ransom and that moving the horse was impossible because they were under police surveillance and so Kevin Mallon ordered that Shergar be shot.
The source said: ‘Shergar was machine-gunned to death. There was blood everywhere and the horse even slipped on his own blood. There was lots of cussing and swearing because the horse wouldn’t die. It was a very bloody death.’
Shergar’s body has never been found and no one has been charged with his abduction.
The Irish Equine Centre keep Shergar’s DNA under lock and key in case his remains are ever discovered.
Unlike the other shareholders, Stan Cosgrove’s insurance policy didn’t cover him for Shergar’s death, only his theft, and because there was no body, he never received a penny.
Jim Fitzgerald retired from stud work aged 68 and was given a photograph of Shergar by the Aga Khan with a handwritten message thanking him for his years of dedication.
Jim always refused to speculate about what had happened to Shergar: ‘There are all sorts of stories out there and people add to them,’ he said. ‘They don’t need me adding any more.’
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