Everybody, even beyond the world of horse racing, knows the name of Shergar. Many however don’t appreciate him for the racehorse he was, which is to say he was a very special one.
Bred in Ireland, Shergar was trained in England by Michael Stoute and was a most brilliant Derby winner in 1981 before he was retired.
Despite his brilliance on the track, Shergar is of course famous for his disappearance. In 1983 he was stolen from the stud farm in which he stood, with a ransom of some £2 million being demanded.
The ransom was refused, with negotiations with the kidnappers breaking down entirely. Much later in 1999, a former IRA supergrass claimed that it was his organisation who’d stolen the horse, though they’ve never admitted any guilt. His whereabouts are official still unknown.
In his honour, the Shergar Cup is run at Ascot every summer. Inaugurated in 1999, the Shergar Cup is a rare team sport within races, jockeys riding in teams across several races during the day.
Shergar was foaled on March 3rd, 1978 at the Aga Khan’s private stuf, Sheshoon, close to the Curragh Racecourse in Ireland.
His sire, Great Nephew, was a fine stallion who’d won some major races on the track including the Prix du Moulin and the Prix Dollar. He was also responsible for stars such as Grundy, Tolmi and Mrs Penny among others.
The dam, Sharmeen, is a direct descendant of one of the most important broodmares of all time, Mumtaz Mahal, so on breeding a lot was expected of Shergar from the very beginning. He was also said to be a very easy horse to break.
|Sire/Dam||Grand Sire/Dam||Great Grand Sire/Dam|
|Sybil’s Niece||Admiral’s Walk|
|Sharmeen||Val de Loir||Vieux Manoir|
Shergar’s Stud Career
Though naturally cut very short, Shergar’s stud career was briefly successful and promised a lot.
Owner the Aga Khan has turned down big money from the States to send the colt there, but instead he stood him in Ireland at the Ballymany Stud. After retiring from racing (see below), he arrived at the stud farm in October 1981.
1982 was proven to be his only active season at stud. Then, he covered 44 mares and produced 36 foals. Of those, three won races at Group level with the best of them being Authaal. Sold before he was even a yearling for 325,000, he went on to sell for 3.1 million and won the Irish St Leger by five lengths.
It was expected that he would earn around £1 million at stud in his second season with 55 mares booked, but his kidnapping put paid to that.
The Aga Khan announced for the first time in 1978 that he would be sending horses to be trained in England for the first time.
Given that Michael Stoute was having such a brilliant time as a trainer in this era, he was chosen by the owner to look after the Aga Khan’s horses and ultimately, that included Shergar.
Shergar ran for the first time as a two-year-old on September 19th, 1980. He took part in the Kris Plate, a conditions race with Lester Piggott booked to ride, staged at Newbury over a mile.
Sent off the 11/8 favourite, Shergar was tucked in just behind the pace before being allowed to open up and win impressively by 2½ lengths.
Even in this company, the performance was thought to be one of the best of the year in the juvenile ranks and his trainer decided that Shergar would have one more run before being put away for the year.
Sticking to a straight mile, Shergar was stepped up to the top level in the Futurity Stakes at Doncaster in late October. Ridden once more by Piggott, he was a 5/2 shot this time.
Again, he sat just behind the leaders and looked to make his challenge late on, but in the end Beldale Flutter was too strong and beat Shergar home. Despite defeat, all was well within the camp and a crack at the 1981 Derby was now on the cards.
By the spring of 1981 Shergar had grown up plenty, his stamp now truly impressing his owner and trainer. The Derby was to be his main target, with his season planned around it.
He was first sent to Sandown Park in late April for the Classic Trial over a mile and a quarter. Ridden this time by young Walter Swinburn, Shergar was noticeably different from 1980 and streaked clear to win this race ever so impressively by some ten lengths.
Quoted over the winter at 25/1 for the Derby, he was now down to 8/1 with one more trial being needed to strengthen him and get him properly prepared for his date with destiny at Epsom on the first Saturday in June.
With a left-handed track seen as being ideal, Stoute sent Shergar next to the Chester Vase on May 5th, 1981.
As usual he was up with the pace early on, though when it became clear to Walter Swinburn that he had so muc horse underneath him, he pushed for more from a fair way out and went on to win this very respectable Derby trial by a huge 12 lengths.
With his prep having gone brilliantly, Shergar was sent to the Derby at Epsom on June 3rd, 1981.
For prestige, prize money and breeding purposes, the Derby is the one race the majority of Flat owners, trainers, breeders and jockeys want to win.
Shergar was as short as 10/11 favourite at the off under Swinburn and was racing strongly. At the top of the hill he’d started to pierce his way through the field and, rounding Tattenham Corner he hit the front a long way out.
He immediately began to open up and it was obvious that this had become a one-horse race, a very rare occurrence in the Derby. Ultimately, Swinburn was able to ease off with a quarter of a mile still to go and yet win the Blue Riband race by a crazy ten-length margin. That was the largest Derby-winning margin ever.
With that, Shergar had confirmed his place among racing’s greats.
It was nearly all over for Shergar after the Derby when, on June 15th 1981, he dumped his work rider, bolted through a hedge and began trotting towards the village. He was brought back unharmed by a local resident having first stopped to graze on a hedge.
Unperturbed, his team set their sights on the Irish Derby at the Curragh at the end of the month. Walter Swinburn was suspended from Royal Ascot, leaving Lester Piggott to once more take the ride.
Taking the lead three furlongs from home, the race was put to bed very easily with him winning the race by four lengths. Lester Piggott confirmed to the press that he always knew the horse was going well within himself and that he was clearly one of the best he’d ever ridden.
Remainder of 1981
After winning the Derby at Epsom, $40 million was offered by owners in the USA to syndicate Shergar. This offer was turned down by the Aga Khan, who instead syndicated him for £10 million at £250,000 a share. This was a record.
There was still racing to be done, with the King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot next on the agenda at the end of July.
This time Shergar was faced with a pedestrian pace and he was also boxed in at one point. Despite this, he was able to free himself and show a fine turn of foot to win once again by four lengths on his first start against his elders.
After this, the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe was seen as a fitting end of year target, with one more race to be taken in first. He was upped in trip for another Classic, the 1m6f St Leger at Doncaster on September 12th, with Swinburn on board.
It had been reported in the press that in the lead-up to the race, Shergar had not been working well and that he had been acting out rather. Stoute denied these reports.
In the race, Shergar was going OK but the soft ground was not something he enjoyed. He did not show his usual speed up the straight and laboured in the end to fourth place, some 11½ lengths behind the winner, Cut Above.
Though subsequent tests revealed nothing abnormal, Shergar was left out of the Arc after that defeat. Instead, it was announced that he would be retired to stud.
|19/09/80||Kris Plate, Newbury||2½ lengths||11/8|
|25/04/81||Classic Trial, Sandown Park||10 lengths||Evs|
|05/05/81||Chester Vase, Chester||12 lengths||4/11|
|03/06/81||The Derby, Epsom Downs||10 lengths||10/11|
|27/06/81||Irish Derby, Curragh||4 lengths||1/3|
|25/07/81||King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes, Ascot||4 lengths||2/5|
In winning his six races, Shergar brought in £436,000. That equates to around £1.5 million in late 2022. Winning the Derby, Irish Derby and the King George in 2023 would have earned him around £2.5 million.
After winning the Derby, 40 shares were sold in the horse which valued him at £10 million. He was set to earn many million at stud before he disappeared.
On February 8th, 1983, the Aga Khan’s stud farm was raided by an armed gang who stole Shergar.
A dialogue was opened up between the thieves and the owners, but communications broke down after only four days when the owners would not accept the apparent proof of life offered by the gang.
Sean O’Callaghan, formerly of the IRA, published an account of the theft in 1999 saying that it was conducted in order to raise money for arms.
According to him, Shergar panicked soon after he was taken and damaged a leg, something that led to him having to be destroyed by the gang. This is why no acceptable proof of life could be provided.
No arrests have been possible and Shergar’s body has never been found, though it is likely it seems that he is buried on the land of a former IRA member near Ballinamore in County Leitrim.
Shergar was bred and owned by Shah Karim al-Husayni, otherwise known as HH Aga Khan IV.
He was trained throughout his career by Michael Stoute, now knighted and still winning Derbies as recently as 2022 from his base in Newmarket.
Shergar was ridden three times by Lester Piggott, but most memorably, including in the Derby, by Walter Swinburn whose name was made in part by his cool riding in such a high-pressure situation as a young rider.