03 June 2006

Shergar's triumph transcends the tragedy


**Via Newshound

**See also Police hunt Shergar's kidnapper's

We should recall the marvel of 1981 for his greatness, not his unfortunate and mysterious disappearance, writes Sean Magee

Saturday June 3, 2006

Twenty-five years ago today the Aga Khan's white-faced colt Shergar scampered up the Epsom straight to win the Derby by 10 lengths, the longest winning margin in the race's 226-year history. Less than two years later he was snatched by masked gunmen from the Ballymany Stud, near Newbridge in County Kildare, and disappeared off the face of the earth, spawning a mini-industry of books, documentaries, a ludicrous feature film and limitless employment for sleuths, hoaxers, clairvoyants and water-diviners.

Into the void left by an almost complete lack of evidence as to his fate poured a range of theories, most fingering the IRA, some involving Colonel Gaddafi, the New Orleans mafia or a vengeful bloodstock dealer wronged by the Aga Khan. Not to mention the story that Shergar had swum to a boat lurking off the Waterford coast, from where he was taken to Saudi Arabia to cover mares for a mega-rich potentate.

The generally accepted account is that Shergar was abducted by an IRA unit who killed him a few days later when negotiations for a £2m ransom had gone nowhere and the horse was becoming uncontrollable. His remains have never been found, though in 1991 the Sun located him in a field in the Channel Islands, and the Sunday Sport reported a definite sighting of Shergar being ridden by Lord Lucan.

Shergar's disappearance brought him a place in the public consciousness rare for any racehorse but the anniversary of his astonishing Derby victory is the moment to celebrate him for what he really was: one of the all-time greats.

Bred by his owner in County Kildare, close to the stud from which he was snatched, Shergar went into training with Michael Stoute at Newmarket. His debut race in 1981, was the Guardian Classic Trial at Sandown Park, the first ever sponsored by this paper at the behest of the Guardian and Observer racing correspondent Richard Baerlein, who after seeing the colt sluice home by 10 lengths famously advised punters that "at 8-1 Shergar for the Derby, now is the time to bet like men".

Baerlein's followers were handsomely rewarded. After winning the Chester Vase by 12 lengths, Shergar started odds-on favourite at Epsom, ridden by the 19-year-old Walter Swinburn, by then Stoute's stable jockey. Recalling the "dream ride" of his first Derby, Swinburn tells how early in the race Shergar "found his own pace and lobbed along as the leaders went off at a million miles an hour, with me just putting my hands down on his withers and letting him travel at his own speed".

Early in the straight Shergar pulled his way to the front and went further and further clear, so far that John Matthias on the runner-up Glint Of Gold thought he had won: "I told myself I'd achieved my life's ambition. Only then did I discover there was another horse on the horizon."

Swinburn was suspended for Shergar's next race in the Irish Derby, the ride reverting to Piggott, who produced a masterclass in how to win a Classic without moving a muscle. "He used to take quite a good hold" is Piggott's matter-of-fact recollection, jockey-speak for saying the rider's best tactic was to let the horse find his rhythm and go at his own pace.

The way Piggott and Shergar sauntered past their flat-to-the-boards opponents, as if two films were being played at different speeds, propelled the commentator Peter O'Sullevan into raptures - "He's only in an exercise canter!" - and Shergar into the equine stratosphere.

Before he raced again Shergar was syndicated for breeding, £250,000 buying one-fortieth of his reproductive timesheet to produce a valuation of £10m, then a record for a stallion standing in Europe.

The King George at Ascot followed, with the older generation trounced before the wheels came off in the St Leger at Doncaster. Swinburn was sending out distress signals with two furlongs to go, and Shergar could finish only fourth behind Cut Above, a horse he had beaten comprehensively in the Irish Derby. Piggott's view is that "he must have been over the top by then" but, whatever the explanation, Shergar's racing career was over.

A new one beckoned and in October 1981 the rookie stallion arrived in Newbridge. To the oompah of the town band and the cheers of schoolchildren waving flags in the Aga Khan's green and red racing colours, he was paraded up the main street. The Aga Khan, whose decision to stand Shergar in Ireland defied those who had gloomily expected his removal to the United States, was there to greet his hero.

Shergar produced 35 foals from his single season at stud, the best turning out to be the 1986 Irish St Leger winner Authaal, but only one had been born by February 8, 1983. That evening, one week before Shergar was due to resume covering duties, a horse trailer rumbled up the drive and past the paddocks towards the stud buildings and he was transmuted from celebrity racehorse to cause célèbre.

This Derby Day forget Lord Lucan, Colonel Gaddafi and visions of the IRA shooting a panicking racehorse and instead remember Shergar coasting up to the Epsom winning post with that enormous tongue lolling out as if in defiance of the grisly fate that awaited him. Wherever he may lie, his epitaph should be Swinburn's simple declaration: "That horse could gallop."

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