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Saturday, November 27, 2010

the high profile theft of Shergar and the sordid killing

As one travels in Chennai suburban EMU towards Tambaram, one notices lots of activity at this Railway station – Guindy.  It lies closer to the famous Race course which was set up way back in 1777 – people throng this place to watch and bet on horses – it is a different world out there. 

Historically, one tend to associate great horses to Arabia but factually majority of the founding mothers of prized horses come from Europe.  These race horses look very majestic and shining.  Pesi Shroff (incidentally born in 1965), Vasant Shinde, Aslam Kader, Robin Corner, Malesh Narredu and Appu are some of the famous champion jockeys.

Derby is the place for horse racing and for long  I thought the association is with Derbyshire – a county in England which our Srinivasan Venkatraghavan represented in 1970s.  Far off the target.   Understand that Derby is a type of horse race named after Derby Stakes which runs at Epson Downs Racecourse.  Traditionally, it was a race restricted to 3 year olds thoroughbred colts and fillies.  It is Britain’s richest race and most prestigious of the classics. This place actually is in Surrey, England.  

For those totally new to punting, horse racing is a equestrian sport generating billions of money.   In 1980s the name in the circuit was Shergar. It won the 1981 Epsom Derby Gold by 10 lengths  - the longest winning margin beating s it beat the much touted Glint of  Gold. Shergar was rode by Walter Swinburn and won Chester vase.  At Irish Derby,  Lester Piggot rode to win with ease.  With six wins, he won £436,000 in prize money.    This acclaimed Irish race horse was the European horse of the year in 1981 and also had the fame of a spot in The  Observer’s 100 most memorable sporting moments of the 20th century.  It was a bay colt with a distinctive white blaze.  It was retired for breeding and on 8th Feb 1983 was stolen from the Stud in Ireland by masked gunmen.  The sad story became the theme for several books, documentaries and a film.    A murderer convict who turned against IRA later claimed that the horse died because its captors could not handle it.   The nabbers had planned and had recruited somebody who had worked with horses but handling a thoroughbred stallion turned out to be different.  The horse could not be controlled and hurt himself. 
Demand  of a £5m ransom was never met.   Even after 27 years of kidnapping, this incident is much spoken about.  The extra ordinary racing machine had a callous end. Even its remains were never found not even by the high profile Irish investigators and precise circumstances of its grisly death was not fully public.  Shergar was 5 years and was preparing for his second season as a stallion when he was snatched from the Ballymany Stud in a  winter's evening.    The bay colt was owned by the Aga Khan,  was trained by Sir Michael Stoute at Newmarket and was ridden by Walter Swinburn, who now trains in Britain.
Horse racing and breeding is an industry in Europe and Shergar though wanted by American studs returned to his native Ireland and was syndicated for £10 million (40 shares worth £250,000 each).  The pedigree of a race horse is most important and owners of brood mares were queuing up for thoroughbreds to be sired by Shergar. 

Those were the days of wooden gates and no electronic security, cctv and other gadgets.  On Feb 1983, three masked armed men barged and took Shergar at gunpoint, shouting for £2 million [ransom].  It was loaded on to a horsebox.  It was reported that the major racehorse sale at Ireland was to take place and horse boxes were being driven length and breadth, which made the search more difficult.

It became a sensational national news and there were house to house searches.  There were many theories as to who had kidnapped the horse.  Some related it to IRA for funding arms.  For years there were rumours that Shergar was still alive.   Sean O'Callaghan,  in his book The Informer, stated that the horse in a frenzy injured itself and was killed within days.   It is believed that the horse was machine gunned to death.

Since it was owned by Syndiate, some members had insured the horse for theft.  Sadly none gained from the bizarre theft – the thieves never got any money and it was reported that most Insurers did not pay to the syndicate.  Aviva Insurance group reportedly paid £144,000, to its policy holders presuming the horse to be dead – and closing the file of one the high profile claim arising out of a theft of a famous race horse loved by a race crazy Nation

Regards – S Sampathkumar.

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