AS tributes pour in for the legendary jockey Walter Swinburn following his death on Tuesday, he will always be remembered for his partnership with the mighty Shergar, the winner of the 1981 Epsom Derby.
The Shergar story captured the imagination of the racing world. He had a distinctive white blaze on his face, four white “socks” and an unusual racing style – he ran with his tongue lolling out of one side of his mouth – Shergar quickly became an adored public hero.
The bay colt was owned by the Aga Khan, the billionaire spiritual leader to 15 million Ismaili Muslims, was trained by Sir Michael Stoute at Newmarket and was ridden by the “choirboy”, an angelic looking 19-year-old Walter Swinburn.
The turf great was kidnapped at five years of age, preparing for his second season at stud, and never found. It is a puzzle that will probably never be solved.
Shergar had secured his position among the 20th-century greats by the time the curtain came down on his career at the end of the 1981 season, during which he’d won the Derby by a sensational 10 lengths, a record distance that century for Britain’s biggest flat race.
He’d won the Sandown Classic Trial by 10 lengths, the Chester Vase by 12 on the way to Epsom, where he started a 10-11 chance and won in a stroll. Later, when Swinburn was suspended, he was ridden by Lester Piggott to win the Irish Derby by four lengths.
The young rider was back in the saddle for another four-length victory against the older generations in the King George VI And Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot.
But Shergar’s life would end in tragedy after he was syndicated for stud duties and arrived at Ballymany with everything ahead of him.
On the night of February 8, 1983, a foggy evening, intruders broke into the Aga Khan’s Ballymany Stud in County Kildare and kidnapped the champion.
Shortly after 8.30pm, Jim Fitzgerald, then 53, the head groom who lived at the stud, heard a knock on his door. As his son, Bernard, answered it, three masked and armed men barged their way in and started ordering the family around. “We have come for Shergar. We want £2 million [ransom] for him,” one said.
With no security guards or even CCTV cameras in those days, Fitzgerald was forced at gunpoint to lead the gang to Shergar’s stable. They loaded the horse into a stolen horsebox that they had brought with them. By now there were up to eight gunmen on the scene. Two stayed behind to “guard” the groom’s family and Mr Fitzgerald was forced into a car, later released.
It was not until about 4am that the Garda (Irish Police) was alerted – and one of the biggest security operations in the Republic’s history swung into action.
The kidnappers, believed to be members of the IRA, had chosen the day before Ireland’s major Goff’s racehorse sale – when horse boxes were being driven the length and breadth of the country – to abduct Shergar, thereby making it more difficult for the stallion to be found.
There were problems: the kidnappers mistakenly believed that Shergar belonged solely to the Aga Khan when, in fact, the horse was owned by 34 members of the syndicate, who had to agree tactics. Even then, the consensus was that if a ransom were paid, every racehorse in the country would become a potential target.
The kidnappers had also failed to anticipate the reaction of the people of Ireland – a horse-loving nation – to Shergar’s abduction. The IRA’s operations were heavily disrupted as every known Republican stronghold and safe house was raided in the hunt for the horse which, in turn, led to the seizure of several arms caches.
The IRA has privately tried to blame renegade members for the kidnap, but Kevin O’Connor, a historian and journalist with top Republican contacts, dismisses this idea.
“An operation of this intensity requiring this amount of manpower would have to have been authorised at a high level,” he said.
A Sunday Telegraph investigation in 2008 claimed that Shergar was killed in the same way the IRA disposed of human enemies – gunned down with a machine gun – and that is said to have happened four days after his kidnapping when no agreement could be reached with his owners.
At the time, Walter Swinburn was distressed by the paper’s findings. “No horse deserves an ending like that – let alone one as special as Shergar!”
Gerry Reynolds, a businessman and politician who was born and brought up in Ballinamore, and was Fine Gael MP for Sligo/Leitrim for 20 years, until 2007, said: “According to folklore, Shergar lies buried in an outlying farm near Ballinamore.
“I would love to see this mystery resolved so that we all knew what happened to the horse’s remains. But I honestly don’t think Shergar’s grave will ever be found.”
Headline photo by Getty Images: The young Aga Khan with Shergar, after the Derby.
Scroll down for video replays.
Sunday Telegraph (Andrew Alderson, January 2008)
Video replay: Shergar wins 1981 Epsom Derby
Video Replay: Shergar wins 1981 King George VI and QE Stakes (With Peter O’Sullevan commentary, slow-motion finish and lead-in).