In a chill Irish drizzle last Saturday afternoon, in the horsey little town of Newbridge, 30 miles from Dublin on the road to Limerick, a senior officer of the Gardai Siochana, Ireland's police force, stood at the door of the single-story police station and said with sincerity, "I would love to think that Shergar is still alive." This was Detective Chief Superintendent Jim Murphy, looking startlingly like a gracefully aged Dick Tracy, right down to his gray fedora with a black band. Murphy was clearly speaking not just as a cop but as an Irishman.
Four nights earlier, the magnificent 5-year-old stallion Shergar had been kidnapped, and the Irish felt demeaned and outraged. In 1981 Shergar, then owned by the Aga Khan, had gained fame by winning the 201st English Derby in the fastest time in the history of the race and had reportedly prompted a U.S.-based syndicate to bid a record $40 million for him. Ultimately he was kept in Europe and went to stud at Ballymany, the Aga Khan's farm near Newbridge, last year. He was scheduled, within days, to begin his second season at stud.
The state of desperation of the Irish police assigned to solve the Shergar case was such that even as Murphy was speaking 30 cops were beating the bushes, so to speak, near the villages of Tynagh and Killimor, in the far west county of Galway. They were there on the advice of two English clairvoyants, who had announced that the horse would be found in that area. "Possibly," the seers had added mysteriously, "in a ruined abbey."
No one, outside of a Dick Francis thriller, had ever kidnapped an important thoroughbred stallion before, and at first the whole scenario seemed to indicate that this was the work of a careful reader of Blood Sport, a novel Francis wrote in 1967, which featured a similar snatch. "Hope they didn't get the idea from me," Francis, a former jockey, said somewhat apprehensively when the news broke.
February 21, 1983
As the week went on, the Shergar story would take on another dimension, as if Damon Runyon were collaborating with Francis, but the start was pure Francis. At about 8:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 8, five or six armed men burst into the home of Jim Fitzgerald, the 55-year-old head groom at Ballymany. He was held at gunpoint while his wife and five children were locked in another room. Then Fitzgerald was forced to load Shergar into a horse trailer. Security was minimal at the farm and where the farm drive opened onto the Dublin-Limerick road, there was an unlocked gate. The horse trailer may have headed west, while the blindfolded Fitzgerald was driven around the countryside for perhaps four hours. Eventually he was released some 30 miles from his home. He was then able to phone his boss, Farm Manager Ghislain Drion, a Frenchman, who alerted the world to the crime in the early hours of Wednesday morning.
That same day, Drion received a ransom demand of almost $3 million, seemingly a handsome sum until you reflect on Shergar's real value, established in 1981 in classic races in England and Ireland. For some, indeed, the abiding memory of Shergar's racing career was not his English Derby win but his triumph in the Irish Derby at The Curragh track, less than a mile from Ballymany, where he'd also been foaled. In the 1½-mile Irish race, Lester Piggott, the veteran jockey who is England's equivalent to Willie Shoemaker, almost disdainfully eased back on Shergar in the last quarter-mile, allowing the colt to canter home by four lengths.
When it came to syndication time, all the signs were that Shergar would be U.S.-bound. But the Aga Khan, who is rich enough to indulge his sentiments, did not want the horse to go overseas. So he settled for a comparatively modest $15 million for the 34 syndicate shares in Shergar that went on the market. The Aga Khan kept six more shares for himself and stipulated that the colt stand at his own stud farm. So Shergar headed home for Ballymany, where last year he showed a very high fertility rate, impregnating (at $68,000 a cover) 42 of 44 mares. Just a week before the kidnapping, the first of his progeny was foaled, a colt out of Hilo Girl, who's owned by the U.S. millionaire Bert Firestone. The colt is now under heavy guard at Gilltown Stud Farm, about 10 miles from Ballymany. This week Shergar was to embark on his 1983 schedule of 55 mares. For nonsyndicate members, his stud fee this year would be $93,000, and his potential earnings close to $5 million. The bloodstock industry puts roughly $135 million a year in foreign currency into Ireland's embattled economy, and Shergar's share is a not unworthy contribution.
If you drive west from Newbridge and crest the hill that leads away from Ballymany, you're suddenly confronted with a lovely panorama of rolling land. This is The Curragh of Kildare, the heartland of Irish horsebreeding, where the grass grows out of limey soil, rich in the calcium that builds equine bone. That soil, plus the traditional expertise of Irish horsemen, is what causes the world's wealthiest horse owners, the Robert Sangsters, the Bert Firestones and the Aga Khans, to buy and sell in Ireland, and to ship in their mares to be bred.
Once the raw shock of Shergar's abduction had been digested, the Irish began ruefully to assess the wider damage that could follow, in particular a flight from the country of foreign money if horse owners from Japan to the U.S. should take fright. On Saturday, at the Leopardstown racetrack near Dublin, former International Olympic Committee President Lord Killanin summed up Ireland's anxiety with passionate language. "For God's sake," he declared, "I implore everyone in this island to keep a lookout...in the name of Irish racing and of our image in this world." That same evening the Aga Khan, who was in Sardinia, spoke ominously on Irish TV of the "blow to the Irish economy" that the crime represented.
Financial matters aside, once the news broke in Ireland there began an outpouring of conjecture. Was this a simple criminal act to extort money, or was there Irish Republican Army involvement? Rich men attract enemies; was it plain envy and malice? Like everything else in the Shergar case, at week's end these questions remained unanswered. The IRA made no comment about the kidnapping, and it seemed an unlikely candidate. In a nation of horse lovers, snatching Shergar would be as counterproductive an action as one could imagine. On the other hand, who else in Ireland could carry off such a smooth operation?
The most important question was, of course, where was the stallion hidden? There were two schools of thought: The horse was either still very close to The Curragh or over the border in Northern Ireland. In either case, the pundits were saying, the gang would have its problems. In his racing days, Shergar had the reputation of being an easygoing horse, but no stallion is entirely that, and well nourished and coming up to the mating season, it was suggested, he might be on a sort of sexual high.
On Thursday morning The Sun, a London tabloid, announced that Peter Campling, its veteran racing writer, had been contacted via intermediaries by a man who claimed to be one of the kidnappers. Campling was told to proceed to the Europa-Forum Hotel in Belfast, Northern Ireland, where further instructions would be given. There were, it turned out, two other journalist invitees, Lord John Oaksey of The Daily Telegraph of London, and Derek Thompson of Thames Television. It appeared to be the moment of truth. In fact, it turned out to be a moment of farce.
The threesome took off from London's Heathrow Airport in a departure as private as Saturday night in Piccadilly Circus. Not surprisingly, the journalists were joined at the Europa-Forum by a gaggle of colleagues—"eagle-eyed, hard-drinking, would-be Pulitzer Prize winners" was Oaksey's unkind description—who later would give the three journalists an unusual experience, that of being hunted by a pack of journalists.
The promised phone call from the supposed kidnapper did come through, and Thompson answered it in the hotel lobby with TV cameras and other newsmen in close attendance. Thompson's side of the conversation was overheard by millions on TV, and then the three journalists were smuggled out of a rear entrance of the hotel and into a waiting automobile. But the press pack was soon on their tail as they headed 30 miles south from Belfast to the stables of Trainer Jeremy Maxwell in County Down, whence they had been directed by the mystery caller.
Maxwell and his wife, Judy, it turned out, had already been called by the self-described kidnapper, who was now using the code name of Arkle. (Arkle was a great Irish jumping horse in the 1960s.) The Maxwell home rapidly filled with police and reporters. The evening produced another phone call, however, and a weird one it was. The ransom had been reduced to a mere 40,000 Irish punts (about $56,000), said Arkle.
On Friday, Oaksey was ready to admit that he had been taken for a ride by a hoaxer. A "razzmatazz, idiotic media caper" was how he saw it. The hoax went on the next day. This time, however, the call was more sinister. "Something has gone dreadfully wrong," a voice said to Judy Maxwell on Friday morning. "The horse is dead." Early that morning, the BBC had been called with the same message, though that caller had specified that Shergar had received a serious eye injury in the stall where he was being kept and had had to be put down.
It seemed for a while that tragedy had overtaken farce, and a front-page Dublin Evening Herald headline on Friday said SHERGAR IS DEAD—GANG. That the newspaper, a sensationalist sheet, chose to lead its front page with a Shergar story rather than with a horrific London multiple-murder case that had just broken, gives some idea of the importance of the kidnapping to the Irish.
The odds were, however, that these phone calls were just more cruel hoaxes. Meantime, there was a growing sense in the country that the public was not being told the whole truth. On Saturday, Murphy looked dispirited, as if somehow things had passed out of the hands of the police. It had been noticeable that no pressure had been put on Fitzgerald for a description of the kidnappers. "Jim," Murphy said, "had a terrible fright," so police were taking it easy with him.
It wasn't until Monday that the Gardai issued a description of any kidnappers. One was said to have a Northern Irish accent, another was built like a jockey. Meantime, in the Irish Independent, an anonymous member of the stable staff cast doubt on early descriptions of the events of Tuesday night. The kidnappers, the man said, needed no assistance from Fitzgerald to find Shergar's stall. They knew their way around Ballymany.
The police, moreover, seemed to have little control over communications in and out of Ballymany; they weren't, for instance, monitoring the farm's phone lines. On Sunday, Murphy, for the first time, appealed to the kidnappers, saying, "There are strong indications that Shergar is dead. I ask the men responsible to produce evidence that this is not so." Because there was, as far as the public knew, no information one way or the other on the horse's condition, it was very possible Murphy's remark was one calculated merely to provoke a response from the kidnappers.
Significantly, Murphy also said on the weekend, in reference to the Aga Khan, "His Highness is a very reasonable and intelligent man. It will be very risky, dangerous and foolish to negotiate any deal."
By Monday, however, The Irish Times, a paper not given to sensationalism, reported that an undercover deal was being set up between syndicate members and kidnappers, involving a "reward" of one million Irish punts ($1.4 million). Semantics can be juggled—as between "ransom" and "reward," for instance—and, presuming Shergar was still alive, there was a strong whiff of negotiation in the air.
In the meantime, it was as if one had bought a new Dick Francis novel and found the last chapter to be blank pages. However, Francis always contrives a happy ending, and millions of Irishmen were hoping, indeed praying, that the next few days would see a happy ending to the Shergar story, too.