Thursday, May 2, 2019

The Mystery of the Missing Horse: “Taking Shergar”

Horseracing has suffered a black eye lately in SoCal. At Arcadia’s venerably beautiful Santa Anita Park, all racing was suspended in March of this year, following fatal injuries to 23 Thoroughbreds. The impact of heavy rains on Santa Anita’s dirt tracks may have contributed to the death toll, but its cause still remains a mystery. Not nearly so great a mystery, though, as the fate of the Irish-born Shergar, a onetime European Thoroughbred Horse of the Year who in 1981 won the Epsom Derby by ten lengths, a record that still stands.

After falling to fourth place in his eighth race, Shergar was retired to stud on an Irish farm called Ballymany (not a bad form of retirement, all things considered). But in 1983, on the cold dark night of February 8, three men roughed up stud groom James Fitzgerald and his family, then spirited the horse away from his stall. The best guess, and there have been many over the years, is that the men were foot soldiers for the Irish Republican Army, and that the abduction was a scheme to raise money for the cause by way of demands for ransom. In fact, some ominous phone calls did demand that Shergar’s owners cough up a major cash payment in exchange for the horse’s release. But, early on, the phone calls stopped coming. And from that day to this, Shergar’s whereabouts have remained unknown.

This is very much in my mind right now, because I’ve just finished reading Taking Shergar, written by my friend and colleague, Milton C. Toby. Milt, who’s currently the national president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, hails from Kentucky, a state that has its own passion for horseracing. An attorney as well as an author, Milt is a recognized expert in equine law. He’s written about Thoroughbreds for forty years, The subtitle of the current book, which is part of the Horses in History series from the University Press of Kentucky, is Thoroughbred Racing’s Most Famous Cold Case. In it Milt thoroughly examines all the aspects of the crime, including its many colorful personalities. (One, an Irish police superintendent, bears an uncanny resemblance to Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau.) The one thing Milt can’t do, though, is provide an ending for the story. What happened to Shergar we’ll probably never know.

Filmmakers have tried their best to bring Shergar to the screen. There was a BBC television play in 1986, as well as a 1999 film starring Ian Holm and Mickey Rourke. The description of the latter, simply titled Shergar, sounds horribly treacly: “Shergar is based on the true story of a champion race horse, allegedly abducted by the I.R.A., then rescued by an orphaned boy.”  I don’t know where that orphaned boy came from, but it’s a sad fantasy to think that Shergar was ever rescued. Much more fact-based were two TV documentaries, the Irish-made Who Kidnapped Shergar? (from 2004) and last year’s Searching for Shergar from the BBC. What’s obvious from all of this is that in some circles, the racehorse has never been forgotten.

There’s something about horses on screen that warms many hearts. Remember a very young Elizabeth Taylor riding The Pie to glory in 1944’s National Velvet? Remember Kelly Reno and a wizened Mickey Rooney training a champion in 1979’s The Black Stallion? The most inspiring of the lot may be Seabiscuit, the 2003 equestrian biopic based on Laura Hillenbrand’s history of the undersized, overlooked racehorse whose triumphs helped Americans survive the Great Depression. Would that Shergar’s story ended on such a winning note. 

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