Tag Archives: Epsom Derby

A Look at the Night He Disappeared

It was a cold and foggy February night in 1983 when a group of armed thieves crept onto Ballymany Stud, near The Curragh in County Kildare, Ireland, to steal Shergar, one of the Thoroughbred industry’s most renowned stallions. Bred and raced by the Aga Khan IV and trained in England by Sir Michael Stoute, Shergar achieved international prominence in 1981 when he won the 202nd Epsom Derby by ten lengths—the longest winning margin in the race’s history. The thieves demanded a hefty ransom for the safe return of one of the most valuable Thoroughbreds in the world, but the ransom was never paid and Shergar’s remains have never been found.

In Taking Shergar: Thoroughbred Racing’s Most Famous Cold Case, Milton C. Toby presents an engaging narrative that is as thrilling as any mystery novel. The book provides new analysis of the body of evidence related to the stallion’s disappearance, delves into the conspiracy theories that surround the inconclusive investigation, and presents a profile of the man who might be the last person able to help solve part of the mystery.

In honor of such a gripping tale, we have included an excerpt from Taking Shergar below, which tells of the beginning of the mystery that is the disappearance of one of the most beloved champions of horse racing.

The story broke early Wednesday morning.
Julian Lloyd, a livestock insurance underwriter for the John Marsh Syndicate at the time, was staying at the Keadeen Hotel in Newbridge. He had an 8:00 a.m. appointment that day to meet a veterinary surgeon from Sycamore Lodge Equine Hospital, a clinic located at The Curragh. The two were supposed to visit the Aga Khan’s Ballymany Stud, just a mile down the road and situated between the hotel and the racecourse, to talk about a possible increase in insurance premiums. The veterinarian arrived in a rush as Lloyd was walking out of the hotel.
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Shergar winning the Chester Vase by twelve lengths on May 5, 1981. (George Selwyn)

“We’re in good time, Joe,” Lloyd told his friend. “There’s no need to hurry.”

“Oh, no,” the vet said. “Shergar was taken in the night.”

“What?”

“He was taken.”
“You mean he’s dead, Joe?”

“No, you eejit, taken. Someone stole Shergar!”
“Oh my God!”
Lloyd tried to piece together the story of what happened to Shergar, but information was scarce and nothing he heard made any sense. The first reports were brief and confusing. An armed gang? Shergar missing? The stud groom kidnapped? Ransom? The Irish Republican Army?

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Shergar with jockey Walter Swinburn and lad Dickie McCabe before his 10-length victory in the Guardian Newspaper Classic Trial at Sandown Park on April 25, 1981. (Miralgo Publications Photo Archives/John Crofts photo)

Tuesday, February 8, one of the coldest days in Ireland that year, started like any other for James Fitzgerald. A quiet man in his fifties, Fitzgerald had worked for the Aga Khan’s family for his entire life, ever since 1945, when he was sixteen years old. Now he was the stud groom at Ballymany, a job his father had held before him, and one of the most valuable Thoroughbreds in the world was his responsibility. Fitzgerald took the job seriously, but never in his wildest dreams did he imagine being asked one day to put his life on the line for “his” horse.

Fitzgerald lived with his wife and children in a house a short walk from the four-stall stallion barn. The house was isolated, situated at the end of a narrow, tree-covered lane well off the road running between Newbridge and Kildare Town. Security at Ballymany consisted merely of a heavy wooden gate with a simple latch at the bottom of the lane. A sign for visitors read: “please close gate.
Around 8:40 in the evening, a man wearing a long coat and peaked cap, the way a Garda officer might dress on such a bitterly cold and rainy night, walked up to James Fitzgerald’s house and knocked on the front door. Fitzgerald, who had just returned from checking on Shergar one last time before turning in for the night, was upstairs and one of his sons, Bernard, went to the door. No one expected visitors at that time of night.
Hearing the knock at the door and then a commotion from the front of the house, Fitzgerald hurried downstairs. He found chaos, a scene that he could not immediately comprehend. Bernard lay pinned to the floor by a masked man and two other men in balaclavas were shouting, waving their hands, and pointing guns at his family.“We’ve come for Shergar,” one of the men said.
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Weekly Giveaway

What do Kentucky, the Singer sewing machine, the Aga Khan, and The Beatles have in common? A horse, of course!

Kentucky is known as the Thoroughbred capital of the world, but that wasn’t always the case. The original “Derby” was England’s Epsom Derby, and American horse racing was seen as working class entertainment.  But in 1954, the horse racing industry was taken by storm when a Kentucky-bred long-shot won the Epsom Derby. The horse, Never Say Die, made history across the pond and opened the door to Kentucky becoming the international epicenter of Thoroughbred breeding and sales.

ImageIn Never Say Die: A Kentucky Colt, the Epsom Derby, and the Rise of the Modern Thoroughbred Industry, James C. Nicholson examines the career of the first Kentucky-born racehorse to win the Epsom Derby.

Never Say Die, a chestnut colt with a white blaze and three white feet, was owned by the American philanthropist and art collector Robert Sterling Clark. Nicholson explains that through legal negotiations, Clark claimed the Singer sewing fortune and went on to create his world-class stable of Thoroughbreds. Nicholson also explores the history of the horse’s breeder, Sultan Mohammed Shah, the third Aga Khan, who produced some of the world’s top racehorses and bloodlines.

Still wondering how Never Say Die could be connected to The Beatles? Mona Best, a Liverpool housewife and mother, pawned her jewelry to place a bet on a horse with 33-1 odds because of its name. With her winnings, Best opened the Casbah Coffee Club on August 29, 1959, a coffee bar operated out of her basement. It was there that her son Pete joined a local band called the Quarrymen. Pete was later replaced by Ringo Starr and the band changed their name to The Beatles.

Never Say Die explores the history of Thoroughbred racing before its American dominance, looking back to the shift of power in the industry that began with Never Say Die’s unlikely victory in England’s greatest race.The success of American owners and horses abroad, in turn, helped make the United States—and central-Kentucky in particular—the unquestioned center of the global Thoroughbred breeding industry.

Enter by 1:00pm on Friday, April 26 for your chance to win a copy of Never Say Die.