Social historians may note one day that last week was when the sport of thoroughbred racing went totally, if splendiferously, bananas. In Kentucky, free-spending Americans, Arabs and Greeks were upstaged by an Englishman, Robert Sangster, in a spree that contravened every financial guideline that has hitherto ruled the bloodstock industry. In England, a parallel craziness seemed to reign. There a 3-year-old colt, acclaimed by two veteran observers as the finest thoroughbred to emerge on either side of the Atlantic in this century, was syndicated for nearly $19 million, a price which, strange as it may seem, has to be the greatest bargain in the history of the turf.
This equine epic came into focus early in the week at the Keeneland yearling sales in Lexington, Ky. (page 17) and ended with pomp and circumstance at a royal occasion at Ascot racecourse, just west of London, on Saturday afternoon. As the horses paraded for the running of the $375,982 King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes, one of the onlookers was Queen Elizabeth II.
Naturally, the huge crowd was pleased to see her, but what the racegoers had really come for was a last, close-range glimpse of another idol, a colt named Shergar, a dark bay with white socks, a white face and perfect manners. As his groom led Shergar around, there was scattered applause—not loud, mind you, rather the sort you might hear at Wimbledon when an unseeded Bulgarian is playing whomever on Court 18. Such a demonstration is rare at the Ascot paddock. "I never heard that before," one spectator said.
Almost unnoticed in the crowd was Shergar's owner, His Highness Shah Karim, Aga Khan, 44, leader of the stateless Ismaili sect of Muslims, graduate of Harvard and one of the world's richest men. He is baggy-suited, plump and balding, with the charisma of a supermarket manager, and if he looked preoccupied, there was an excellent reason for it. In less than half an hour, should Shergar win the race, the Aga Khan would have a paper loss of at least $20 million. Even Shergar seemed moved by the occasion, stepping sedately across the turf with six of the finest thoroughbreds, five of them older, that could be mustered to run against him. Shergar was such a heavy favorite you would have had to give the bookies ¬¨¬®¬¨¬£11 sterling to win ¬¨¬®¬¨¬£4 on him, which hardly seemed worthwhile.
August 2, 1981
Shergar was foaled on March 3, 1978, at the Aga Khan's stud at Ballymany in County Kildare, Ireland. On his dam's side, his blood was all French—he was out of one of the Aga Khan's own broodmares, Sharmeen. He was sired by the entirely English horse Great Nephew, who had earlier fathered the 1975 English Derby winner, Grundy.
Shergar ran twice as a 2-year-old, winning easily his first time out, then losing by 2½ lengths to a horse named Beldale Flutter. (Beldale Flutter went a little crazy in training this year, escaped and crashed into last year's European Horse of the Year, Moorestyle, knocking him over and bruising him badly. Beldale Flutter also put himself out of action for six weeks.)
But nothing went wrong for Shergar after that one defeat. This year he became a legend by pulverizing his opponents in his first four races. In his two preps for the English Derby he won by a total of 22 lengths. In the Derby itself he came home 10 lengths ahead of the field, the greatest margin in the 201-year history of that renowned race. In the Irish Sweeps Derby, Shergar was so far ahead in the stretch that jockey Lester Piggott eased him up a furlong from home and cantered in for a mere four-length victory. Incidentally, Shergar wasn't racing against a bunch of dogs. Glint of Gold, the horse that had trailed 10 lengths behind at Epsom, had won the Italian Derby and later triumphed in the prestigious Grand Prix de Paris.
By Irish Derby time in late June, Shergar had become unbackable as far as most bettors were concerned, though those with deeper pockets in the megadollar world of horse breeding were jostling to bid for syndication shares. It seemed inevitable that the colt would go to stud at the end of this season. There were rumors afloat that offers of more than $40 million had come from U.S. breeders, offers that nearly doubled the record price of $22 million for which Spectacular Bid was syndicated in 1980. It seemed that Shergar would surely be lost to European breeders and that after his last race, the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe in France this October, the colt would be Kentucky bound.
Oblivious to the fuss, Shergar trained for the King George VI at Newmarket Heath, 70 miles north of London, at the farm of Michael Stoute, a 35-year-old Barbadian who is currently England's leading trainer. Stoute lives in a mellow brick house that once belonged to Lord Carnarvon, the discoverer of the tomb of Tutankhamen. ("I'm going to dig up the cellar one day," Pat Stoute, Michael's wife, says. "There might be a gold mask or two down there.") Shergar was stabled across the yard, guarded by, among other things, three Jack Russell terriers and a stable lad who proudly declared that he had been stopped only once in 50 bouts as an amateur featherweight.
What could possibly make Shergar worth $40 million? To begin with, his conformation. The horse isn't unusually big—he weighs 990 pounds—but, as his groom says, "He's got a great big barrel and a big bellows, and he has to have a big heart, too, to pump all the blood and the oxygen for that acceleration he's got." His temperament is also outstanding. "A very relaxed athlete," Stoute says. "He's a dreamy sort of horse," says stablehand Clarry Betts, 68. "He doesn't care bloody sixpence about anything. Then, when he's racing, he does everything right."
One morning in June, Shergar decided to go wandering after tossing his rider on Newmarket Heath. First he headed for the town of Bury St. Edmunds and crossed the busy Bury-Newmarket highway, deftly avoiding traffic. Then he cantered for three miles up a secondary road until he came to a signpost pointing to Newmarket, where he hung a right and headed for home. He might have made it back to Stoute's had he not been nabbed by the police.
Forty million dollars crossing a main road isn't funny, though the escapade couldn't be blamed for a sensational announcement by the Aga Khan on July 9. In spite of the huge transatlantic offers, the Aga Khan declared, Shergar would stay in Europe. There would be 40 shares in a ¬¨¬®¬¨¬£10 million ($18,750,000) Shergar syndicate. Six would be retained by the Aga Khan himself and 34 would be sold to outside buyers at the equivalent of $467,500 each. The catch: The money had to be raised in the two weeks before the King George VI. If the 34 shares weren't sold in time, Shergar would be eating bluegrass in Kentucky before the year was out.
If Shergar was truly the horse of the century, then this was the bloodstock bargain of all time. "I am making a considerable financial sacrifice," said the Aga Khan. As he spoke, it seemed to some that the ghost of an old man was standing at his shoulder, that of his grandfather, the previous Aga Khan, who had named Prince Karim as his successor, passing over Aly Khan, the prince's playboy father.
By the mid-20s, the old Aga Khan had established the largest racing establishment in British sporting history. In Ireland alone he had five studs. The world's richest man, he was presented with his weight in gold each birthday by his followers—and his weight was not inconsiderable. Still, he agonized over whether to tip with a dime or a quarter. He won the English Derby five times, then shipped three of those winners to the U.S.
The old Aga Khan's name is still mentioned with bitterness in British racing circles, where he is remembered as the man who caused a hemorrhage in the British bloodstock industry, from which it has never recovered. What hurt the British most of all was that two of the Derby winners, Bahram and Mahmoud, were sold from neutral Switzerland in World War II, where the Aga Khan went in 1940 in spite of the British citizenship and knighthood he had been granted. His assets in France having been frozen, the Aga Khan said, he needed cash.
It is this memory that the present Aga Khan was trying to erase when he put Shergar up for sale for less than $20 million. He is a man very conscious of his public image, one damaged recently by the lengthy legal battle that he has waged with American breeder Wayne Murty over the ownership of 56 horses sold by the estate of the French textile millionaire Marcel Boussac. Last December, as the Aga Khan strolled into the Carlyle Hotel on Manhattan's East Side, he was served with a writ by Murty's lawyers that could yet land him in court to face a $50 million lawsuit.
The Aga Khan had other motives for letting Shergar go at less than top dollar. He owns 140 broodmares, and under current U.S. regulations, none of his proven mares can be sent to the U.S. to be covered by stallions standing here because of the possibility of the importation of the equine disease metritis. Not such a bad idea, after all, for the Aga Khan to keep the horse of the century at home.
As it turned out, the European horse breeders had nothing to worry about. "The place is a madhouse," Ghislaine Drion, the Aga Khan's Irish representative, reported from Kildare after Shergar was put up for syndication. Sangster, the multimillionaire English breeder, reputedly tendered an offer well over the asking price. And, according to the London Daily Telegraph, in the press box at the Newmarket races on July 9 a group of entirely sober racing writers could be heard discussing improbable ways of raising the cash in order to buy a share for themselves.
An announcement would be made before the race, said the Aga Khan, and the only concern now was who would be permitted to buy into Shergar. Until last week's Keeneland sales, it was almost the sole topic of discussion among British horsemen.
Then, at Keeneland, on July 20, Sangster dropped his first bomb, bidding $3.5 million for a yearling son of the fashionable Northern Dancer, more than doubling the previous record price for a yearling. On July 23, Sangster dropped an even bigger bomb. He said he had sold Storm Bird, a colt who had never raced as a 3-year-old, to an unspecified American syndicate for a world-record $30 million. The papers had still to be signed, but hands had been shaken on the deal, which had leaked out when Lloyd's of London doubled the insurance on the animal.
It seemed scarcely credible, although Storm Bird, another son of Northern Dancer, had won all five of his races as a 2-year-old. He had also been the winter-book favorite for the English Derby. Injuries and illnesses, however, had prevented the colt from running in 1981.
"The yearling we bought at Keeneland was a full brother of Storm Bird," said Sangster. "And the way things are going, we won't have to race him at all." Indeed, the way things are going, racehorses will become something like pork-belly futures. An astute investor could make millions without ever even seeing one.
Which is perhaps why the genuine horsemen at Ascot howled as Shergar came home first by four lengths, with 19-year-old jockey Walter Swinburn appreciatively patting him on the neck as they approached the wire. The odds being what they were, the true horsemen had little to gain financially and they probably would never see Shergar race again. But they loved him as a great horse.