Inside The Strange And Shocking Kidnapping Of The ’80s Most Beloved Racehorse, Shergar

Published May 2, 2019
Updated May 3, 2019
Published May 2, 2019
Updated May 3, 2019

Shergar was one of the greatest racehorses the world had ever seen when he was kidnapped in 1983. His case remains open today.

Shergar Mid Race Full Color

Getty ImagesShergar in the St. Leger Stakes at Doncaster.

The 1980s version of American Pharoah, the dominating force in English horse racing, was the untouchable Shergar. He retired a folk hero to stud in Ireland when he suddenly vanished in 1983. Shergar was never found and his strange fate has puzzled fans for more than 30 years.

Shergar: The Equestrian English Icon

Shergar winning the 1981 Irish Derby.

In 1978, a remarkable thoroughbred horse was born in Kildare, Ireland. Sherger was bred and owned by a renowned horseman, His Highness the Aga Khan IV, leader of the Nizari Ismaili Muslims. The bay colt captivated his team from the beginning as he was already a talent at two. Shergar blossomed at three for trainer Sir Michael Stoute and jockey Walter Swinburn to groom him for competition.

Shergar’s work jockey once said of the thoroughbred’s early years: “As a two-year-old, I sat on him. He just gave you that special feel and after that little bit of work, the boss came walking up and I just said to him: ‘I think this is the one you’ve been waiting for.'”

He could not have been more right. Shergar won England’s number-one classic race, the Epsom Derby, in 1981. His margin of victory? 10 lengths — the greatest ever recorded in Derby history.

Shergar followed up that triumph with big wins in the Irish Derby and King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes. He dominated the three-year-old division like few had in recent years.

In 1981, racing correspondent Richard Baerlein sang Shergar’s praises, writing that “I am inclined to agree with the two experts I quoted last week who stuck their necks out and opined even before the Derby that Shergar is the best horse they had ever seen. The horse himself can confirm this as the season advances.”

Shergar Leagues Ahead At Epsom

Getty ImagesShergar winning the Derby by some 10 to 15 lengths.

Out To Stud And Gone For Good

Racing experts ranked the champion among the best horses to ever set hoof on a European racetrack. The Aga Khan had sold 40 shares of Shergar for £250,000 (US$327,000) per share and kept a few for himself. The Aga Khan and co. also charged an astronomical fee of £80,000 (US$105,600) for one mare to breed with the champion horse.

Just like many talented horses, Shergar retired to stud after his three-year-old season in the hopes that his incomparable genes could be passed on. He was consequently all set to reside at the Aga Khan’s Ballymany Stud in Kildare and he bred with some 35 mares. He produced a total of 36 offspring, 17 colts and 19 fillies (females). Of these, but one was quite successful, though their successes were nowhere near their father’s.

Meanwhile, the land on which Shergar had retired was in great turmoil.

The 1980s was a peak time of conflict between the mostly Protestant Northern Irish and the Catholic Republic of Ireland. This argument was dubbed the Troubles and armed conflict erupted. The Irish Republican Army (IRA) and its political counterpart, Sinn Fein, grew in power. In Shergar’s epochal season, several IRA members went on a highly-publicized hunger strike. Leader Bobby Sands died as a result and caused tensions to explode nationwide.

Shergar Stands Outside Stables

Micheal Daines/Mirrorpix/Getty ImagesShergar at his stables June 6, 1981.

On the evening of Feb. 8, 1983, a knock came at the door of Shergar’s groomer and stable keeper at Ballymany, Jim Fitzgerald. He answered, opening the door to masked and armed men. Holding him at gunpoint, the thugs demanded Fitzgerald take them to Shergar and lead the horse into a stolen trailer. Forced to obey, Fitzgerald later recounted that the bad guys said they wanted a hefty ransom for the horse.

The thugs then drove Fitzgerald into the middle of nowhere, dropped him off, and forced him to walk home without turning around. “I can tell you, I didn’t look around once – I was happy to be on the ground,” he told the Telegraph many years later. Upon returning home, Fitzgerald called the stud manager.

Reporters were called as well which caused a media storm in the horse-loving Ireland. But the criminals and authorities soon began to negotiate terms for the horse’s return. But because the Aga Khan wasn’t the horse’s sole owner anymore, he and the 34 other owners of Shergar all had to come to an agreement on these terms.

The Irish government immediately suspected the IRA and wrought havoc on the organization. They raided known IRA hangouts and stables, looking for Shergar and leaving no stone unturned. Multiple investigations sprang up at the same time, leading to competing law enforcement authorities working the case and not adequately sharing leads and information.

The Stables In Ballimore

Independent News And Media/Getty ImagesAt the Ballymanny Stud Farm from where Shergar was stolen.

Because the IRA was in dire need of cash at the time to fuel their rebellion, they thought a ransom for the most famous horse was a lucrative strategy. Indeed, as former IRA intelligence officer Kieran Conway told The Sun, “I thought it was probably a good stroke. The Aga Khan was known to be an extremely rich man. He would not be as concerned about the political implications of giving the IRA money as a ­southern businessman would.”

As more time passed with nary a conclusion as to Shergar’s whereabouts, the local cops became celebrities. Chief Superintendent James Murphy became an infamous figure in the papers. His unique style and clueless mannerisms encouraged the tabloids. At the same time, he didn’t do much in the way of finding Shergar, despite the global headlines.

A Lame Ending For The Great Horse

The investigation into Shergar’s disappearance eventually petered out. No one ever found him and one of the last ransom calls eventually mentioned his gruesome death by machine gun. In 1999, an IRA “supergrass,” or informant, came forward and admitted culpability. They had hired a pet veterinarian to care for Shergar but the vet decided not to work with them at the last minute. As the IRA had not made adequate provisions to care for the horse, they killed him instead.

One Of Shergars Fouls

PA Images via Getty ImagesOne of Shergar’s colts named Hilo Girl runs in the pastures of Ballymanny Farms. Sept. 2, 1983.

Because there is a spot the size of a thumbnail on a horse’s head which need be hit to prevent suffering, it is likely Shergar’s death was fraught with suffering. His remains were never found though filmmaker Allison Millar found a cache of letters from an IRA informant which indicated that he was buried just over the Northern Irish border, near the boggy village of Ballinamore.

His team and supporters lamented his horrific end. Politician Kevin Reynolds, who once represented Ballinamore in Parliament, told The Telegraph that “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.” Thus, the case of the stolen and possibly mutilated thoroughbred remains open to this day.


Next up, read about this man who said he had consensual sex with a horse because the animal winked at him. Then, check out the cruel and — fortunately — forgotten sport of horse diving.

Carly Silver
An editor and public historian, Carly Silver has written for Smithsonian, Narratively, The Atlantic, Atlas Obscura, and Archaeology, among other publications.