Tag Archives: racing history

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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Your Call to Post: It’s Derby Time!

This Saturday marks the 137th Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville, “The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports.” There are few other Kentucky traditions that fully encompass what it is to live in or visit the Bluegrass State. The Derby has it all: beautiful horses, the twin spires in the background, roses, hats, mint juleps, and of course who doesn’t get chills at the Call to Post and the playing of My Old Kentucky Home during the post parade?

Herewith, a few of our favorite Derby-themed books:

The Thoroughbred Horse has an unparalleled significance to the state of Kentucky. The breeding, training, selling, and racing of these remarkable animals today amounts to a multibillion dollar sporting business, and the development of that industry serves as a compelling history of both the state and the Sport of Kings itself. The Kentucky Thoroughbred tells that story, chronicling racing’s history through tales of its most dominant, memorable stallions.

“Hollingsworth writes with authority and a good deal of polish about an exotic industry in which Kentucky has led the world for at least a century, and about equine feats that today’s horseplayers may find virtually incredible.”–Louisville Courier-Journal

In her debut book, How Kentucky Became Southern: A Tale of Outlaws, Horse Thieves, Gamblers, and Breeders, former turf writer Maryjean Wall explores the post–Civil War world of Thoroughbred racing, before the Bluegrass region reigned supreme as the unofficial Horse Capital of the World. Wall uses her insider knowledge of horse racing as a foundation for an unprecedented examination of the efforts to establish a Thoroughbred industry in late-nineteenth-century Kentucky. How Kentucky Became Southern offers an accessible inside look at the Thoroughbred industry and its place in Kentucky history.

“When the nation’s attention focuses on Churchill Downs again next spring and Louisville turns on the charm, we will now know . . . what exactly it is what we’re drinking to when we raise that first mint julep.”–Wall Street Journal

Thanks in part to the general popularity of cocktails and the marketing efforts of the bourbon industry, there are more brands of bourbon and more bourbon drinkers than ever before. In The Kentucky Bourbon Cocktail Book, Joy Perrine and Susan Reigler provide a reader-friendly handbook featuring more than 100 recipes including seasonal drinks, after-dinner bourbon cocktails, Derby cocktails, and even medicinal toddies.

“Joy Perrine and Susan Reigler showcase the world of bourbon in a reader-friendly format, highlighting techniques, ingredients, food selection, and glassware for the professional or home bartender. . . . Everyone, from the bourbon connoisseur to the amateur enthusiast, can appreciate this how-to guide, which embraces the rich heritage and sophistication of a true Kentucky classic.”--Kentucky Post


Lighthearted, entertaining, and informative, The Kentucky Mint Julep explores the lore and legend of the Kentucky Derby’s traditional tipple.Information on julep cups, tips on garnishing and serving, and reminiscences from the likes of Charles Dickens, Washington Irving, and General John Hunt Morgan give a fun, historic look at Kentucky’s favorite drink. The book includes numerous recipes—for classic juleps, modern variations, non-alcoholic versions, and the author’s own thoroughly researched “perfect” mint julep.

“Mint, syrup, bourbon. Horse-racing fans instantly recognize those ingredients for a mint julep, the signature cocktail of the Kentucky Derby. The book has more than 20 recipes. . . . It’s definitely a book to read before you buy silver julep cups.”– New York Times


In Kentucky Horse Country: Images of the Bluegrass, renowned photographer James Archambeault captures the natural beauty of Kentucky’s Bluegrass region and the thoroughbred industry for which it is famous. Kentucky Horse Country contains 165 full-color images, from tender scenes of mares and foals grazing, to the excitement of race day at Keeneland, to gorgeous landscapes of white fences enclosing lush rolling hills.

“Internationally renowned photographer James Archambeault has done it again—captured the beauty of our state with his lens and preserved it within the pages of a coffee-table book that any Kentuckian would be proud to own, or place under the Christmas tree for some other fortunate reader.”–The Voice- Tribune