Remembering the Shergar mystery

As tributes pour in for Walter Swinburn following his death at the age of 55, the riding great will always be remembered for his partnership with the mighty Shergar, the winner of the 1981 Derby.

Walter Swinburn pictured aboard Shergar at Ascot

But the Shergar story went on to run much deeper than that, with the horse being kidnapped from Ballymany Stud in Ireland. The horse was never found and it is a puzzle that will probably never be solved.

Shergar was lionised in the racing world for the manner of his triumph in the 1981 Derby, and to this day his winning margin of 10 lengths stands as a record for a race first run in 1780.

The Aga Khan, spiritual leader of the Ismaili sect of Shia Muslims, has since landed the much-sought-after prize another four times, with Shahrastani, Kahyasi, Sinndar and Harzand, but none of them could match the impact made by his first winner.

The big bay with the white blaze had secured his position among the 20th-century greats by the time the curtain came down on his career at the end of the 1981 season, but the drama was far from over.

On the night of February 8, 1983, a foggy evening, intruders broke into the Aga Khan's Ballymany Stud in County Kildare and kidnapped the horse.

It is generally accepted the IRA were the culprits, that his abductors were ill-equipped to control a thoroughbred stallion, and that he was killed shortly afterwards. But his remains have never been found.

Shergar's racing career was guided by Sir Michael Stoute, who sent him out to win six of his eight races, taking the Sandown Classic Trial by 10 lengths and the Chester Vase by 12 on the way to Epsom, where he started a 10-11 chance and won in a stroll.

With the teenage Swinburn suspended he was ridden by Lester Piggott to win the Irish Derby by four lengths.

But the young rider was back in the saddle for another four-length victory against the older generations in the King George VI And Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot.

Both Shergar's defeats came at Doncaster, where he closed his racing career with an inexplicable loss at long odds-on in the St Leger.

The wonder horse was syndicated for stud duties and arrived at Ballymany with everything ahead of him.

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But he was to become one of the more celebrated victims of 'the Troubles' when armed raiders stole him one winter's night after forcing groom Jim Fitzgerald to follow instructions at gunpoint.

With the kidnappers apparently unaware the Aga Khan was no longer the sole owner of the horse, demands for payment of a massive ransom came to nothing – though there were bizarre twists.

At one stage even then-ITV racing presenter Derek Thompson was sucked into the maelstrom of negotiations, whether true or hoax.

Thompson said: "I'm sure Shergar's disappearance hit Walter hard. He never talked about it, he kept things bottled up.

"He was only really a kid at the time. It was over 30 years ago but I still remember it like it was yesterday."

It all ended in tragedy, of course, and it remains a mystery as to where the horse's remains are buried, in some unmarked grave with no plaque or statue to celebrate his glory.

Periodic 'finds' have unearthed nothing more than skeleton impostors; as any racing fan could attest, there was only one Shergar.

Thirty-five years on from his disappearance, Shergar's name is more pertinently linked with that of another infamous absentee, Lord Lucan, than with the Derby.

The racing world, however, has not forgotten. Nor, too, will it forget Walter Swinburn.

Thompson added: "I was lucky enough to call Walter a friend, he came to my wedding. He could be a difficult man at times – he had his demons – but at heart he was a good man.

"Without doubt he's one of the most gifted horsemen I've ever seen. He was always in the right place and had a gift very few possess.

"He was just 19 when he won the Derby on Shergar and watching it now still gives me goosebumps.

"However, I think his ride on Sharastani in the 1986 Derby was peerless.

"People always say Dancing Brave got going too late, but Walter was in the right place. To win a Derby on an inferior horse takes some doing.

"It was such a shame the weight got him in the end.

"His death has come as a huge shock to me. I knew he was ill, but not this bad.

"He's gone far too soon."

The abiding memory will forever be of Epsom in 1981, and that wonderful moment rounding Tattenham Corner when Walter Swinburn flicked the switch and the afterburners powered on.

All that disappeared that day was the opposition as Shergar cleared away, his rivals withering to dots in the distance.

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