Tag Archives: thoroughbreds

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.
Shergar 0505581

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?

10.jpg

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.
Advertisements

Q&A with Milton C. Toby, author of Taking Shergar: Thoroughbred Racing’s Most Famous Cold Case

On a cold February night in 1983, one of the most valuable Thoroughbreds in the world was stolen in Ireland by a group of armed thieves. The thieves asked for a large sum in exchange for Shergar, but the ransom was never paid. Shergar was never returned, his remains never found. In Taking Shergar: Thoroughbred Racing’s Most Famous Cold Case, Milton C. Toby investigates the mystery and the evidence surrounding it. TobyCompF

The theft of Shergar occurred nearly forty years ago. What attracted you to this story that has already been written about by many?
The ideal subject for a book is a story that people think they already know, when in reality they don’t know much about it at all. The theft of Shergar is one of those stories. Almost from the start, conventional wisdom was that the Irish Republican Army was behind the theft, but the IRA never claimed responsibility and there were neither arrests nor convictions. Taking Shergar for the first time connects the economic and political environments that kept Shergar in Ireland after his retirement to stud and later made him an ideal target for the cash-strapped IRA.

What was your favorite, if unbelievable, conspiracy theory that you came across in your research?
The most intriguing theory, one that got a bit of coverage by the Irish press in the days after Shergar was stolen, involved the death of a French bloodstock agent in Central Kentucky. Two months before Shergar was stolen, the body of Jean-Michel Gambet was found in a burning car on the side of a rural lane near Keeneland Race Course. He had been shot to death. The police concluded that Gambet’s death was a suicide, disguised to look like a murder, committed because he was deeply in debt. The jury at a coroner’s inquest, on the other hand, ruled that the death was a homicide, by parties unknown. The supposed connection to Shergar arose because in the months before his death, Gambet had been negotiating for the purchase of a horse with the Aga Khan IV, who owned and raced Shergar. According to the conspiracy theorists, Gambet had borrowed from mafia connections in New Orleans to buy the horse, but the deal fell through. When Gambet was unable to repay the loan, the mafia took revenge by killing the bloodstock agent and stealing the Aga Khan’s horse. Retired detective Drexel Neal has always refuted a connection between Gambet and Shergar, but there are tantalizing questions in the investigative file.

You have worked with and written about the Thoroughbred industry for more than forty years. What can casual racing fans and other non-experts gain from this book?
For racing aficionados already familiar with the basics, Taking Shergar expands the complicated backstory through a meticulously researched account that no one has written before. It’s more than a “horse book,” however. Readers who know little about racing will discover a compelling story about an ill-conceived and poorly executed scheme to steal one of the most valuable horses in the world and the convoluted aftermath when the plan went horribly wrong.

 

John Morrissey: Rogue, U.S. Representative, Racing Icon

Though there won’t be another historic Triple Crown win at Belmont Park this year, racing history looms large in New York state. Just north of Elmont—where the Belmont Stakes are run—is Saratoga Springs, home of the National Racing Museum and Hall of Fame and Saratoga Race Course.

sm_MorrisseyThe third oldest racetrack in the United States, Saratoga Springs saw its first thoroughbred race card on August 3, 1863, organized by John Morrissey, who was at the time operating a  gambling house in the resort town. An Irish immigrant, an enforcer for Tamany Hall, a professional boxer, and a prodigious gambler, John Morrissey was—if nothing else—an unlikely candidate to become one of the most important figures in the history of Thoroughbred racing. But despite being the kind of man who made a fortune in the Gold Rush, won fame as a prizefighter, found political success through Boss Tweed’s machine, and challenged William Poole (better known as “Bill the Butcher”), Morrissey’s name has escaped many history books.

Nicholson_FinalNow, James C. Nicholson (author of The Kentucky Derby and Never Say Die), finally does justice to this rags-to-riches story in The Notorious John Morrissey: How a Bare-Knuckle Brawler Became a Congressman and Founded Saratoga Race Course. Nicholson traces Morrissey’s remarkable life while also shedding light on fascinating issues of the era, such as the underground prizefighting economy, the rancorous debate over immigration, and labor laws that protected owners more than workers. He digs most deeply, however, into the business of Thoroughbred racing and Morrissey’s role as the founder of Saratoga Race Course.

In advance of this year’s Belmont Stakes, and the start of Saratoga’s racing schedule, we spoke with Nicholson about Morrissey’s improbable life and why Saratoga and its founder are instrumental to understanding of horse racing’s history.

How did you first get introduced to Saratoga Race Course and John Morrissey’s story?

I worked at the horse auctions in Saratoga for a few summers during college and grad school. Unglamorously, my most important duty was helping remove horse manure from the facility. After work, some of my fellow “muck crew” members and I would often trot over to the nearby racetrack to catch a race or two. I was fascinated by the little pieces of folklore and anecdotes about “the old days” that were casually passed around by racegoers, but it was difficult to know if someone was talking about 150 years ago or fifteen years ago. Some of those stories included vague allusions to John Morrissey, who, I learned, had operated the casino at the center of town and had been responsible for bringing Thoroughbred racing to Saratoga. He sounded like an intriguing character, and, in doing research for my first two books, I was surprised to learn that relatively little had been written about him in over a century.

What led Morrissey to begin his career as a political enforcer and his involvement with gang violence?

Morrissey came to the United States from Ireland as a small child, and he grew up quite poor in the lively little town of Troy, New York, on the eastern terminus of the Erie Canal, with seven sisters, an alcoholic mother, and an unskilled father. He was an ambitious young man and realized early on that his ability to endure a beating was perhaps his greatest personal asset. In addition to jobs in factories as a preteen, Morrissey was a bouncer in a tavern and worked on riverboats as a deckhand. He was surrounded by rough crowds throughout his adolescence, when fighting was both entertainment and a means of survival for many young men in upstate New York. After moving to New York City in his late teens, Morrissey’s toughness continued to serve him well. He worked as a political enforcer for the Tammany Hall political machine and as an immigrant runner, meeting new arrivals on the docks and helping to find them work and shelter in exchange for political allegiance to Tammany.

Morrissey had several encounters with William Poole, who was portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis in the film The Gangs of New York. Can you describe their relationship?

Poole was a butcher by trade, and he led a New York City gang called the Bowery Boys. Leonardo DiCaprio played the rival of Daniel Day-Lewis’s character. DiCaprio’s character contains elements of John Morrissey. Morrissey, an Irish-Catholic Democrat, and Poole, a “native” American Protestant Know-Nothing, were bitter rivals within the ethnically and politically charged environment of mid-nineteenth-century Manhattan. The two men had tense encounters within the saloon and sporting circles in which they operated, and Poole beat Morrissey nearly to death in a well publicized encounter months before Poole was killed by Morrissey’s associates in a Broadway tavern.

It would be a stretch to call the film historically accurate, but it does capture some of the spirit of that era. The film does a good job conveying the notion that New York’s Five Points district was a hotbed of violence, poverty, and corruption, and it effectively depicts the deadly hostility between nativists and immigrants, as well as the political power of Tammany Hall. But the film plays rather loose with historical events and historical figures. Perhaps the most glaring creative liberty taken is the fact that Poole was actually murdered in 1855 following a barroom dispute with Morrissey, while, in the film, the Poole character is killed in the New York City draft riots of 1863. But Gangs of New York does accurately portray Poole as a virulent nativist who wielded serious local power.

sm_Morrissey boxingMorrissey turned from criminal to prizefighter, eventually becoming national champion. Today boxing has various sanctioning organizations and clearly defined weight classes. That wasn’t the case in Morrissey’s time, can you elaborate on the differences?

When Morrissey entered the American boxing scene, fights were governed by the London Prize Ring rules, which were far more permissive than the Marquess of Queensbury rules (published in 1867) that modern boxing fans would recognize. In Morrissey’s era, fights were conducted without gloves (“bareknuckle”), and the rules permitted grasping and throwing, but not gouging, biting, or low blows. A round was completed when one fighter was knocked to the ground, and there were no limits as to the length of a fight—some lasted well over 100 rounds. There were no official weight classes, and prizefights had to be conducted in semi-clandestine fashion, as the sport was outlawed nearly everywhere in the United States.

There were also no formal boxing federations like the ones that would emerge in the twentieth century. Championships were largely determined by public acclaim and recognition by the sporting press. That process was less unwieldy than it might sound, however, as the sports community was relatively small and insular by modern standards, and a large percentage of the major figures in American boxing could be found in one of a handful of New York saloons that catered to the sporting crowd. In 1849, Tom Hyer was universally acknowledged as the finest fighter in the nation, earning the informal title of Champion of America following his victory over Yankee Sullivan. When Hyer retired in the early 1850s, Sullivan staked a dubious claim to Hyer’s title by virtue of having been the last fighter to lose to the champion. When Morrissey beat Sullivan, he took the title. Morrissey’s defeat of Hyer’s hand-picked challenger, John C. Heenan, in 1858, cemented his claim to the American championship, as well as his place of honor in the annals of boxing history.

How much of Morrissey’s past was brought up in his campaign, did this have a large effect on his chances? Was it unusual to have that kind of background as a politician in that era?

No one had ever seen someone with Morrissey’s checkered past and deep involvement with boxing and gambling rise so quickly in American politics. Journalists were highly critical of his candidacy for Congress, but, much like what we have recently seen with Donald Trump, the attention that newspapers paid to Morrissey only added to his status as a celebrity and ultimately helped him to appeal to voters.

Describe Morrissey’s connections to Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall? Without their backing do you think it would have been possible for him to win?

Tammany Hall was the major power broker in New York City Democratic politics from the 1850s well into the twentieth century. Morrissey had ingratiated himself to Tammany leadership by providing muscle in local elections. Those relationships facilitated his subsequent election to U.S. Congress. Morrissey eventually had a falling out with Boss Tweed and the Tammany Democrats, and he led an insurrection that contributed to Tweed’s downfall. But without Tammany’s early support there would have been no way a man with Morrissey’s past could be a congressman.

sm_Saratoga

What makes Saratoga such an important facet in the American Thoroughbred industry?

One of the most appealing aspects of horseracing, in addition to the wide variety of participants and enthusiasts it attracts, is its connection to the past. Nowhere is that connection more tangible than in Saratoga. Generations of racing fans have made Saratoga an annual destination, and the well-preserved Victorian architecture there provides a tangible link to a bygone era. The presence of the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame right across the street from the racetrack serves as a reminder of the deep history of racing at Saratoga, which, for over 150 years, has attracted wealthy industrialists and financiers, itinerate gamblers, vacationing families, and vagabond horsemen. This hodgepodge of humanity was an integral part of the festive atmosphere at Saratoga race meets 150 years ago, and it remains so today.

James C. Nicholson is the author of The Kentucky Derby: How the Run for the Roses Became America’s Premier Sporting Event and Never Say Die: A Kentucky Colt, the Epsom Derby, and the Rise of the Modern Thoroughbred Industry. His newest book, The Notorious John Morrissey: How a Bare-Knuckle Brawler Became a Congressman and Founded Saratoga Race Course is available now.

A California Horse Runs for the Roses

This Saturday will be here before you know it, and with it comes the 140th Kentucky Derby! As you prepare to place your bets on some of the fastest horses in the world, consider what our guest blogger, James C. Nicholson (author of Never Say Die and The Kentucky Derby), says below about California Chrome.

 

Each year, on the first Saturday in May, Kentucky takes center stage in the American sports world as the nation’s top three-year-old horses compete in the “Run for the Roses.” For over a century, Kentucky, along with its history, mythology and associated imagery, has been part of the spectacle that captures the imaginations of the scores of thousands who witness the Derby at Churchill Downs and the millions who watch on television. This year, as sports journalists struggle in their annual attempt to assign personalities and backstories to the various equine contestants at the Derby, Kentucky will find itself sharing the spotlight.

California Chrome, image via Google

California Chrome, the early favorite for the 2014 Kentucky Derby, is a California horse. The Derby will be the colt’s first race outside of southern California. He was born in California, the result of the mating of an $8,000 mare to a $2,500 stallion. In the world of Thoroughbred racing, where the majority of American equine bluebloods hail from Kentucky, to be a California-bred is to come from the wrong side of the proverbial tracks.

California Chrome’s seventy-seven-year-old trainer, Art Sherman, is also a Californian. He began a lifetime in horse racing as an exercise rider on the California circuit in the 1950s, and in1955 he accompanied Swaps, one of the horses he galloped, on a four-day train trip from Los Angeles to Louisville. The journey proved to be worth the effort, as Swaps became only the second Cal-bred to win the Run for the Roses.

Victor Espinoza, image via Google

Many of the story lines that journalists will attach to California Chrome will be predictable. His septuagenarian trainer has paid his dues in the sport of horse racing but has never won a Derby. Sherman’s connection to one of the greatest Derby champions of the twentieth century will only add to his “good guy” appeal. Chrome’s owners – one is an engineer in California, the other installs magnetic strips onto credit cards in Nevada – will be portrayed as “regular guys,” appropriately matched with their under-pedigreed horse. The fact that they reportedly turned down an offer of $6 million for a ½ interest in California Chrome will no doubt become a part of any number of newspaper columns during Derby week. The colt’s California-based jockey, Victor Espinoza, won the Kentucky Derby in 2002, but has fallen off in recent years. A Derby victory could jumpstart his career. Each of these story angles has become well-trodden ground in the past two decades at the Kentucky Derby: the elderly, dues-paying trainer; the blue-collar horse with blue-collar owners; and the past-his-prime jockey. But the fresh spin this year will be the tie that binds this cast of characters – California.

Because horses cannot speak, sportswriters have great leeway in the creation of storylines for the Derby, and the narratives that reporters gravitate toward at Churchill Downs during Derby week tell us much about the pervasive values and tastes of a given era. Over the past two decades, the most popular story lines have been those that purport to confirm the notion that anyone can succeed in America and that hard work and patience are, in the end, rewarded.

If California Chrome prevails on Derby Day, those angles will almost certainly be included in race descriptions in newspapers across the country. But the idea that California Chrome is a California horse will also be a major part of journalistic coverage, which should serve as a reminder of the central role that geography has played in the popularity of the Derby itself for well over a century.

 

A big thanks to James C. Nicholson for guest blogging! Be sure to catch the Derby this Saturday evening, and be sure to read Never Say Die and The Kentucky Derby if you want to know more about the tradition of horse racing!

              

 

 

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