On a misty February evening in 1983 Jim Fitzgerald hears a knock at his front door. As his son Bernard opens it, three armed and masked men force their way into the house at Ballymany Stud Farm in County Kildare, Republic of Ireland. The Daily Telegraph newspaper later quoted the words that one of the men spat out. “We have come for Shergar. We want £2 million [ransom] for him.” And so began one of horse-racing’s most enduring mysteries.
Shergar was one of the most successful flat-racing thoroughbreds of his day. He won Britain’s prestigious Epsom Derby in 1980 by the biggest margin ever seen, ten lengths. Other wins came thick and fast. The horse was retired in 1981 and sent to Ballymany; he was now an incredibly valuable stud animal. As befitted such an illustrious stallion, his owner was the Aga Khan, fabulously wealthy and a revered figure in the Islamic world.
After those three men had invaded Fitzgerald’s house, they marched him at gunpoint to the five-year-old horse’s stable. Shergar was loaded into a horse trailer and Fitzgerald was bundled into a car by members of the eight-strong armed gang. After a terrifying ride lasting four hours, Fitzgerald was pushed out of the car. “I can tell you, I didn’t look around once – I was happy to be on the ground,” Fitzgerald later told The Daily Telegraph.
And that was the last that Fitzgerald and everyone else apart from the kidnappers ever saw of Shergar. The very night the horse was abducted, a phone call came in demanding a ransom of about $50,000, considerably more modest than the original $2.5 million mentioned. And the probable identity of the kidnappers emerged. They were almost certainly members of the Provisional IRA, highly active at that time during the height of the Troubles.
The British press arrived in Ireland in strength and the story became an overnight sensation. Leading the investigation for the Irish police, the Gardai, was Chief Supt James “Spud” Murphy. Murphy even resorted to using psychics in the fruitless hunt for Shergar. After convoluted and often confused negotiations, no ransom was paid. And according to one source close to the IRA, in an act of gratuitous cruelty the unfortunate horse was eventually shot. As Fitzgerald put it, “Shergar was a grand horse and he deserved better.”