February 8, 2016 • By Milton C. Toby
There was nothing unusual about a small man hurrying toward the public telephone kiosks standing back-to-back outside the Kildare Town station of the An Garda Síochána—the Irish police—nothing to warrant even a second glance in his direction. The man was clad in tweed against the chill of an uncommonly cool May evening, and while he wore no uniform or insignia, he carried himself in the distinct manner of someone who had spent a fair amount of time in the military.
One of the kiosks was occupied; the man stepped quickly into the other. He lifted the receiver and placed it to his ear, but he made no call. Rather than dialing a number with his free hand, he rested it in the cradle to break the connection. He appeared to be talking to someone when, in fact, he was waiting for the telephone to ring. It was a few minutes before nine o’clock on the evening of May 5, 1983.
The man carried with him a piece of paper where he had written two telephone numbers—21368 and 21625. These were not numbers he intended to call, however. They were assigned to the two public telephones, leaving no doubt that the man was at the right place.
He expected a call from a stranger, someone he’d never met. He could identify the caller only by his voice —which he recalled as “cultured” with an Irish accent—and through the code words “Rugby” and “Fiat 127.” For all he knew, “Rugby” might be watching from the shadows, biding his time. The man was more certain of his Garda minder, whom he had talked with before leaving his East Tully home, a few miles away. He hoped the Garda man was nearby if things took a bad turn.
The minutes dragged on and the man grew impatient. He still was confident that “Rugby” was legitimate and could provide information worth the £250,000 reward already negotiated, but he began to wonder whether he had been lured into a trap that put his wife and family, his home, and himself in peril. No overt threats had been made, but the identification code insisted upon by the caller was troubling nonetheless.
The man loved the game of rugby, a fact he thought the caller must have known when he selected that particular word to identify himself, and he also believed that “Fiat 127” was an obvious reference to the automobile owned by his daughter, Vivienne. Any doubt that “Rugby” knew him and had kept him under constant surveillance for some time was erased when the caller addressed him by name during an earlier conversation.
A long hour passed before the telephone rang.
“Bloody time!” the man snapped when the connection was made. “What nonsense are you up to now? Come on…let me have the proposition.”
“Stop being so abusive and listen,” “Rugby” said. “We want to know whether you are sure you could positively identify Shergar.”
The stallion had been stolen from a stud farm near The Curragh three months earlier, days after the first foal from his first crop had arrived and days before the start of the 1983 breeding season. The man’s contacts with “Rugby” represented as good a lead as any.
“I’m 90 percent positive,” the man replied. “I would need to have a straight opportunity to examine him with no interference, no messing about, no threats. And no money until identification is positive and the horse is found to be fit and well.”
“Will you agree to be picked up and taken to see the horse, without any money? If you do,” “Rugby” explained, “you will have to remain where the horse is until the money is paid, a quarter of a million pounds. We are not going to let you go; we couldn’t afford to do that, not once you have seen the stallion’s hiding place. You realize that, don’t you, Sean?”
There it was, my name again, the man thought as his unease with the situation grew.
Was “Rugby” a person he knew, maybe someone in the Thoroughbred business? More important, did “Rugby” really know Shergar’s whereabouts? Did he have the key that could solve a mystery that had baffled the authorities for nearly three months?
Capt. Sean Berry never spoke with “Rugby” again. The £250,000 reward never was claimed. Negotiations conducted by others also broke down and investigations both official and unofficial stalled with no one in custody. Shergar was not found safe and sound, and the horse’s remains were never recovered.
Years after the fact, the theft of Shergar and the frustrating inability of authorities to locate the horse—or at least identify the men who took him—remain sensitive points among many people in Ireland. Some of the individuals involved have died; others are reluctant to discuss the events of February 8 and beyond. Thirty-three years later, the theft of Shergar remains horse racing’s most famous cold case.
Capt. Berry lives a few miles south of Kildare Town, past the Irish National Stud, in a small, well-kept residence that has been his home for years. Mementos from tours of duty with the 3rd Battalion in India, Pakistan, and the Middle East give the house a curiously Oriental air. The man is gracious with visitors and generous with his time, despite wrestling with the infirmities of old age.
Manager of the Irish Thoroughbred Breeders Association at the time, Capt. Berry was one of the first people notified of Shergar’s theft, even before police were called. He knew his position at the ITBA would require him to deal with the aftermath of the theft, but never in his wildest dreams did he expect to be personally involved in negotiations for the horse’s return. He began documenting the events on scraps of paper and with editorial assistance from a friend, bookstore owner Jack O’Connell, he assembled a contemporaneous narrative—a record from “A to Z,” he said.
I spent an afternoon with Capt. Berry on a pleasant day in May 2015. The timing of my visit marked an odd and unexpected coincidence: we found ourselves talking about Shergar almost 32 years to the day after he took the last call from “Rugby,” 32 years after he was prepared to offer himself as a hostage in an effort to secure the horse’s recovery.
Weather in County Kildare had been miserable the eighth of February, several months before Capt. Berry’s final “Rugby” call. By dusk on one of the coldest days in what would turn out to be the coldest month in Ireland in 1983, a chill fog blanketed the land around The Curragh. The day ahead promised little respite, and when a ringing telephone awakened Capt. Berry at half-past three in the morning, there was little incentive to answer.
Because of his position with the ITBA, though, Capt. Berry knew he could be interrupted by telephone calls at all hours of the day and night. He lifted the receiver with equal parts annoyance and dread and immediately recognized the voice of his friend Stan Cosgrove, one of the most respected and successful equine veterinarians in Ireland. The vet hoped Capt. Berry could provide an unlisted telephone number.
Capt. Berry asked what was so important that he needed the number in the middle of the night. Something very serious had happened, Cosgrove replied without further explanation. Something that everyone would read about in the morning newspapers, he added before ending the call.
Fifteen minutes later, as Capt. Berry still was trying to get back to sleep, Cosgrove called again.
“Shergar has been stolen,” he said.
Capt. Berry recalled the call from Cosgrove as being closely akin to the director of the Louvre in Paris being told that the Mona Lisa had gone missing. A fair question at the time was whether the Thoroughbred industry in Ireland could survive, even if Shergar’s absence from Ballymany was mercifully short. Capt. Berry knew what was at stake. He dressed quickly and raced over to Cosgrove’s house.
Bred and raced by the Aga Khan IV and trained in England by Sir Michael Stoute, Shergar achieved international prominence when he won a trio of group I races during a remarkable two-month span in the summer of 1981. Shergar’s winning margin in the Epsom Derby—10 lengths—was better than any other winner of the race, even though it looked as if young jockey Walter Swinburn was easing him near the finish. He was just as impressive when he won the Irish Derby at The Curragh and the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot.
There were plans to end Shergar’s career with a trip to Longchamp for the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (Fr-I), but he was retired instead after an inexplicable fourth-place finish in the St. Leger (Eng-I) at Doncaster. Despite the loss Shergar remained as popular as ever, and his stock soared in Ireland when plans for his syndication and retirement were made public.
There was little doubt a horse like Shergar was naturally bound for the United States after his racing days were through; that was where the serious syndication money was—perhaps, according to some reports, as much as $40 million. But as is often the case, especially when the subject is the Aga Khan, conventional wisdom was wrong.
His Highness Prince Karim, the fourth Aga Khan, is the leader of some 15 million Ismaili Muslims and one of the wealthiest men in the world. His worldwide sphere of influence is spiritual rather than physical, his status that of a stateless head of state. His grandfather, the late Aga Khan III, was introduced to racing in England around the turn of the last century and by the time of his death in 1957 had established one of the most powerful racing and breeding operations in the world.
Financial concerns during World War II led the Aga Khan to sell his Epsom Derby winners Bahram and Mahmoud to breeders in the United States. He already had sold Blenheim II, sire of Triple Crown winner Whirlaway, to a syndicate headed by the late A. B. Hancock Sr. in the mid-1930s, and in 1944 Nasrullah was sold to Irish horseman Joe McGrath, who in turn sold the stallion to a Bull Hancock-led syndicate for export to the U.S.
Sharply criticized at the time, those sales were blamed by some breeders and owners in England for the failure of local horses to hold their own against runners from France in the post-war years. Joe Palmer, one of the best writers ever to cover horse racing, had this to say in American Racehorses:
The line now is that too many top English horses were sold and exported to France and America and particularly named were *Nasrullah, *Blenheim II, *Bahram, and *Mahmoud, which is a roundabout way of blaming it all on the Aga Khan, since he bred and sold all of these.
It is anybody’s guess whether echoes of the harsh criticism leveled at the Aga Khan’s grandfather nearly a half-century earlier played any part in the syndication plans for Shergar. More likely, it was a simple business decision. The broodmare bands at the Aga Khan’s farms in Ireland and France were growing rapidly. Syndicating Shergar for significantly less than American breeders were offering was a small price to pay to keep one of the best racehorses in the world close at hand.
By late 1981, when Shergar arrived at his breeder’s Ballymany Stud adjacent to The Curragh, he was a national hero in a country that loved its horses. His loss to masked thieves in the night was a disaster in the making, Capt. Berry knew. During the 1970s the Aga Khan, along with a host of other Thoroughbred breeders, flocked to Ireland to take advantage of tax incentives initiated by the government—but now there was fear they might flee the country over security concerns.
Even if Shergar were recovered safe and sound, without further incident, it might be impossible to repair the damage to the reputation of Ireland’s Thoroughbred industry.
Capt. Berry arrived at Cosgrove’s home at four o’clock on the morning of February 9. He found Ghislain Drion, a Frenchman who managed the Aga Khan’s farms in Ireland, on the telephone trying to track down his boss. A local policeman was talking on another line to Chief Superintendent James Murphy at the Garda station in Naas, a few miles away.
Murphy was the quintessential Irish cop. He spoke with a thick brogue, sometimes wore a Columbo-style raincoat over his three-piece suits, and answered reporters’ questions with a soft felt hat pushed back from his forehead. The trilby became Murphy’s trademark, so much so that reporters showed up for one press conference all wearing similar hats. Murphy’s trilby even showed up in the fashion sections of a few Irish newspapers.
Murphy quickly became the official face and voice of the Shergar investigation. Almost as quickly, the press dismissed him as a serious investigator. That was a mistake and unfair to Murphy.
He met the media for the first time at a hastily assembled press conference conducted on the steps of a nearby Garda station the morning after Shergar went missing. Murphy told reporters that he was “slightly concerned” about the theft of Shergar. “A stallion,” he added, “cannot be kept by someone who is not well up in the horsey field.”
It was a peculiar, almost dismissive, assessment considering the seriousness of the situation. During the weeks that followed, comparisons with the inept French detective Inspector Clouseau from the Pink Panther films were inevitable.
Murphy closed the press conference by admitting that the Garda had “no leads” to follow. That would become an often repeated lament from the Garda during the following weeks as frustration grew over an investigation that dragged on without producing any obvious results.
While some of the criticism directed at the Garda in general, and at Murphy in particular, was justified, a broad-brush characterization of the investigator as some sort of comic figure far out of his league was unfair. There is a surprising similarity between the theft of a valuable stallion such as Shergar and the theft of a Rembrandt or a Vermeer. A few years earlier Murphy had figured prominently in the successful investigation of Ireland’s most notorious art theft.
In April 1974, Bridget Rose Dugdale took part in a raid on a private home in County Wicklow. Nineteen master works were stolen and held for ransom as part of a plan to raise money to fund weapon purchases for the Irish Republican Army. She also was implicated in a failed helicopter attack on a Royal Ulster Constabulary station in Northern Ireland. Murphy had been part of the Garda team that tracked and eventually arrested Dugdale.
There was no doubt Murphy knew his way around a high-profile case. The problem he faced was that everyone involved in the investigation, himself included, was totally unprepared for the international attention and general hoopla that followed the theft of Shergar.
A few prominent Thoroughbreds had gone missing in the past (Fanfreluche in Kentucky and Carnauba in Italy come immediately to mind), but those thefts provided little guidance for how to proceed in Ireland. Shergar’s theft was unlike anything Murphy had investigated in the past. He never had seen a case of this magnitude; neither had anyone else.
As he began piecing together the events that led to the frantic calls from Cosgrove, Capt. Berry learned to his surprise and dismay that the police investigation of the brazen theft at Ballymany Stud was just getting underway. Time is of the essence in any criminal investigation, and although Shergar had been missing for nearly eight hours, little had happened. He wondered why no roadblocks had been set up, or even requested of the Garda or of the soldiers at Camp Curragh, a nearby military base that was one of the largest in Ireland.
It still was well before sunrise when Capt. Berry telephoned Finance Minister Alan Dukes, a friend who lived nearby. Dukes in turn contacted the Ministers of Justice and Defense, but by the time a serious response to Shergar’s theft was mounted, whatever trail the thieves might have left had long gone cold.
Nearly eight hours had passed since armed men wearing balaclavas had driven unnoticed up a narrow, gently winding drive toward the barns and offices at Ballymany Stud. Initial reports put the gang at five to six men; later reports suggested as many as eight. Confusion about the number of individuals involved in the theft was an issue during much of the investigation, indicative of the dearth of reliable information the Garda possessed.
The massive wooden gate blocking the Ballymany entrance appeared from the highway to be a formidable barrier to intruders, but in reality it was no barrier at all. The gate was kept unlocked and unguarded and with the start of breeding season still a week away, most of the stud’s employees had gone home for the night.
Getting onto the farm sight unseen was no problem. In a bizarre foreshadowing months earlier, Jonathan Irwin, managing director of Goff’s at the time, had taken visitors to Ballymany to see Shergar. Irwin could not raise anyone, so he and his guests simply opened the gate and drove up to the stallion barn. Apparently without attracting the attention of anyone, Irwin slid open the door of Shergar’s stall, stepped inside, and turned the stallion so that his guests could get a better look at the horse. They left the way they came, still without encountering anyone.
It was a few minutes past eight-thirty in the evening when members of the gang forced their way into the home of stud groom James Fitzgerald. He lived with his family on the grounds, his house a short walk past the office to the four-stall stallion barn. While two of the men held Fitzgerald’s wife and several of his children under armed guard in the house, others took him to Shergar’s stall and forced him at gunpoint to help them load the horse into a dilapidated horsebox, what the Irish call a horse trailer.
After Fitzgerald was bundled into the back seat of a second vehicle, the caravan drove back down the quarter-mile drive and vanished. From start to finish, the theft of Shergar and the kidnapping of Fitzgerald had taken less than a half-hour.
The thieves held on to Fitzgerald until around midnight, when they released him on the outskirts of Kilcock, about 20 miles from Ballymany Stud on the border between County Kildare and County Meath. They left Fitzgerald with a warning that if he called the police, or cooperated with an investigation in any way, his family would be harmed. He had no reason to doubt that the threat was genuine.
“Don’t look back,” one of the men told Fitzgerald as they drove away.
He eventually located a telephone, not an easy task wandering through a small town in the middle of the night, and called his brother to pick him up. Back at Ballymany, Fitzgerald remembered the threat to his family and did not report the theft to the Garda. Instead, he telephoned farm manager Ghislain Drion, who called Stan Cosgrove.
Drion and Cosgrove first drove to Ballymany to be certain that Shergar actually was gone—the Garda still had not been notified of the theft—and then Cosgrove called Capt. Berry.
The advantage of an eight-hour head start without pursuit was exacerbated by Fitzgerald’s initial reluctance to provide any useful information about the vehicles or the thieves to the authorities. Superintendent Murphy excused Fitzgerald’s lapses, telling the press that the groom was in shock after Shergar’s theft and his own kidnapping and that “he was afraid for his family.”
Capt. Berry was less forgiving. He thought Fitzgerald should have been encouraged to cooperate as soon as possible through the use of “strong inducements,” whatever those might have been, coupled with as much police protection as necessary for the family. Capt. Berry understood that the delay in notifying the authorities, along with Fitzgerald’s silence, almost certainly doomed the investigation before it ever got started.
After a few days of official cajoling, Fitzgerald finally was willing to provide the Garda with some information about a few of the men who had taken Shergar. His descriptions, combined with those of several other witnesses who might have seen something suspicious, were good enough for the Garda to put together “identikit” images of three individuals who came to be known as the “Jockey,” the “Guard,” and the “Nose.” Authorities interrogated every jockey and exercise rider they could round up but made no headway toward locating Shergar or the men who took him.
Although the “identikit” images were supposed to be confidential, circulated only to members of the Garda and other police forces involved in the investigation, two of the three images were published in the March 3 Irish Independent newspaper. Publication of the images netted nothing beyond a rash of telephone calls that led nowhere, but landed the newspaper and its editor in court for violation of Ireland’s Official Secrets Act.
At times, the gang that took Shergar appeared to be a well-organized band of sophisticated criminals with a plan accounting for every possible eventuality. At other times, the thieves seemed hapless amateurs who could not manage to get out of their own way.
The timing of the Ballymany raid was impeccable. A major Thoroughbred sale had been conducted earlier in the day at Goff’s, so a higher than normal number of horseboxes were coming and going on the roads around The Curragh. A lone transport that might have seemed out of place on most other gloomy winter evenings could easily have been considered post-sale traffic.
Execution of the theft also was carried out with military precision. The thieves knew enough about the layout, the routine, and the lack of security to be confident they could come and go without attracting attention. In less than 30 minutes, the gang made off with one of the most valuable horses in the world and with a hostage who guaranteed them several hours to flee the scene without interference from the police.
The plan finally started to unravel, as criminal operations generally do at some point, but only after the gang had made off with Shergar and Fitzgerald. The mistakes and apparent blunders, if that is what they actually were, raised questions about the true purpose of the theft.
The gang’s first miscalculation was underestimating the difficulty of handling a frightened stallion at the start of the breeding season. Insurance underwriter Julian Lloyd by coincidence was staying at a hotel a few hundred yards from Ballymany Stud when Shergar was stolen. He was in Ireland to discuss insurance coverage with horsemen and he wound up staying a month as the representative of Lloyd’s of London. It is Lloyd’s understanding that Shergar panicked after being forced into a horsebox too small for him and hauled away in the night. When Shergar became unmanageable and injured himself only hours after he was taken from Ballymany, Lloyd speculated, the gang killed him.
Sean O’Callaghan, who was the Irish Republican Army’s Southern Commander at the same time he was providing information to the Garda, said as much in his memoir, The Informer: The Real Life Story of One Man’s War Against Terrorism.
The second blunder was an erroneous belief that the Aga Khan alone, and not a syndicate with more than 30 members, owned Shergar. Negotiating with one individual was a much different proposition—and a decidedly easier one—than asking a group of people. Attributing sole ownership of Shergar to the Aga Khan was a reasonable mistake for someone unfamiliar with the mechanics of syndication.
The horse was bred by the Aga Khan and carried his breeder’s colors in every race during a well-publicized racing career. The horse’s arrival at Ballymany was heralded by a joyous parade down the streets of Newbridge, with the Aga Khan walking at his head. To the ill-informed, Shergar obviously belonged solely to the Aga Khan and ransom demands usually directed that the Aga Khan must pay.
A committee composed of Drion, Sir John Astor, Walter Haefner, Paul Mellon, and Paul de Moussac had been authorized to act on behalf of the other syndicate members, but the agreement did not contemplate the theft of Shergar. Even had the syndicate members wanted to pay a ransom for Shergar, which the Aga Khan and most others had no interest in doing, the Garda was prepared to block any ransom payment.
With little to do after the Garda finally was notified that Shergar had been stolen, Capt. Berry left for London on business. He returned the next day, Feb. 10, and met with his friend, Jonathan Irwin from Goff’s. They concluded it was a good idea to offer some sort of reward for information leading to the safe return of Shergar. They also believed whoever took Shergar might prefer to negotiate with private individuals rather than with the authorities.
Capt. Berry’s boss, the chairman of the Irish Thoroughbred Breeders Association, immediately authorized a payment of £50,000. Capt. Berry had a tidy sum in his pocket, with a tacit understanding that more money could be available if the thieves made contact.
Characterization of the ITBA money as a reward for information and not as a ransom for Shergar’s release was crucial to the plan’s success. There was official pressure from the start not to pay a ransom of any kind, for two reasons: First, there was the realistic fear that the thieves could not be trusted and that paying ransom would not guarantee Shergar’s safe return; and second, paying ransom for a horse like Shergar almost certainly would encourage future thefts of valuable horses.
The Garda approved the ITBA plan on the onerous condition that Capt. Berry allow his business and personal telephone lines to be tapped. Concern for Shergar outweighed his misgivings about the police vetting his and his family’s private conversations, and with some reluctance Capt. Berry agreed.
News of the reward and detailed contact information for Capt. Berry appeared in newspapers across Ireland on Feb. 11. Calls started almost as soon as the papers hit the streets and continued for weeks, tying up one of Capt. Berry’s office lines during the day and monopolizing his home telephone in the evenings.
A small percentage of the calls seemed genuine, from people who wanted to help or from those callers concerned about Shergar’s welfare. These were callers who typically had no interest in collecting a reward. One individual asked whether instructions on feeding and caring for Shergar could be printed in the newspapers, and another asked Capt. Berry to say a prayer with her and to place a relic from St. Martin de Porres in Shergar’s empty stall at Ballymany. He did what she asked, but the gesture did not help.
Most of the calls were from cranks who simply wanted attention or to cause trouble. The callers complained about everything: problems with the Thoroughbred industry, the state of Ireland in general, Capt. Berry’s appearance on television and in the press, crooked bookmakers, and on and on. A few of the calls were more serious, including one from an individual who threatened to burn Capt. Berry’s house to the ground.
The Garda promised to search every farm and outbuilding in the Republic, and during the weeks following the theft they probably came close to doing it. The intensive searches came up empty.
As time passed and the investigation stalled, Capt. Berry questioned his continued involvement in the search for Shergar. A couple of psychics from San Francisco had taken up residence in his home to the consternation of everyone; his conversations were being recorded; officers were dogging his movements; he assumed the thieves also were watching his house; and a radio tracking device had been installed in his personal automobile. The Berry family no longer had any semblance of a private life, threats were being made, and there was no obvious end in sight.
Capt. Berry theorized at the time that the theft was a botched fundraiser conducted by the Irish Republican Army, and he remains convinced of that today. He stayed the course partly out of his anger and disgust for the IRA and its violent methods and partly because he thought he could aid the investigation. Perhaps most importantly, he was a soldier who felt a duty and obligation to Shergar and to an industry and a way of life that he loved.
Every call, promising or not, had to be investigated by the Garda, which took away valuable resources from the investigation. Combine the calls to Capt. Berry with the calls made to the authorities and to the media, and it seemed as if every person in Ireland who was capable of dialing a telephone had something to say about Shergar.
On St. Patrick’s Day, in the evening, Capt. Berry received a telephone call at home from someone asking about the reward. The amount had not been publicized beyond a suggestion that it was “substantial.” Capt. Berry told the caller the reward was £100,000, a sum that the man said was “not enough.” The caller passed the telephone to a second man who proposed that the minimum sum for negotiations to begin was £250,000.
Capt. Berry said that he could raise that amount. He was not certain that he actually could come up with a quarter-million pounds, but he wanted to keep the man talking. In any case, he guessed that there was little chance the reward actually would be paid. Apparently satisfied, the caller gave Capt. Berry a code name to confirm his identity and promised he would call back.
Code names had become popular shorthand for identification in the search for Shergar. The thieves who took the stallion gave Jim Fitzgerald the code words “Neptune” or “King Neptune” (there was some question about which was correct); a caller to a Northern Ireland horse trainer on the night Shergar was stolen used “Arkle;” and the names of celebrities such as popular singer Johnny Logan cropped up from time to time.
In the future, the caller told Capt. Berry, “Rugby” was the code name he would use. Rugby was Capt. Berry’s favorite sport, but there was no way the anonymous caller could have known that, unless he knew Capt. Berry.
“Rugby” called four days later, again in the evening. Capt. Berry told him the reward now was £250,000. The call was short. “Rugby” said he would call again, and hung up. Garda men had by then joined the San Francisco psychics living with the Berry family, and they cautioned their temporary landlord to be careful.
Capt. Berry took the offensive when “Rugby” called next, March 24. The £250,000 reward could be available in 24 hours, he said, but only after receipt of conclusive proof that the caller really had Shergar and that the horse was alive and well. “Let me have the evidence or forget the whole deal. No more phone calls until then,” Capt. Berry said. He was angry and almost shouting when he slammed the receiver down.
Well before Shergar’s theft, Capt. Berry and his wife had scheduled a two-week vacation in the Canary Islands. He offered to cancel the trip after the March 24 call, when it looked as if the negotiations with “Rugby” might pay off, but the police told him to go ahead. Jonathan Irwin volunteered to stand in for Berry and monitor the phones. There were no calls from “Rugby” while Capt. Berry was out of the country, which reinforced a worrisome concern that his home and his family were under continuous surveillance.
When “Rugby” called next at the ITBA office on May 2, he said that the two of them should meet face-to-face. He instructed Capt. Berry to drive to the Keadeen Hotel in Newbridge near Ballymany Stud and wait for a telephone call. He told Capt. Berry to use the name “Mr. Davies” and that their new code word would be “Fiat 127.” The obvious reference to his daughter’s automobile was worrisome. It could not be coincidence and was further confirmation that both he and other members of his family were under watch.
The call for “Mr. Davies” came at eleven o’clock in the morning, precisely as scheduled. Capt. Berry would return to the Keadeen Hotel the following afternoon with £250,000, where he would be picked up and taken to see Shergar. He already had collected identity and blood typing kits from Weatherbys, and veterinarian Stan Cosgrove, who was as familiar with Shergar as anyone else, would be recruited to accompany Capt. Berry to confirm the stallion’s identity.
The next day, May 3, Capt. Berry returned to the Keadeen Hotel to await the next call from “Rugby,” or “Fiat 127,” or whatever the mystery caller decided to call himself. When the phone rang a few minutes past two o’clock in the afternoon, Capt. Berry demanded that “Rugby” produce evidence that Shergar was alive and in good condition. Otherwise, he said, negotiations for the reward were over.
One of the policemen keeping watch, a plain clothes man from the Special Branch in Dublin, had been part of the backup on Capt. Berry’s trips to the Keadeen Hotel. He warned Capt. Berry that a man who had been watching him at the Keadeen the day before had been there again the next day. There was little doubt that the danger to Capt. Berry, and by extension to his family, was real. The Garda told Capt. Berry that he could quit the chase if he wanted, but he said he would keep talking to “Rugby.”
In the evening two days later, Capt. Berry received another call at his home from “Rugby” directing him to the telephone booths standing outside the Garda station in Kildare Town. During that call Capt. Berry explained that Stan Cosgrove must accompany him to identify Shergar. “Rugby” said that he knew Cosgrove and that it probably was acceptable for the veterinarian to accompany Capt. Berry. He said he would call back with instructions, but never did.
Conflicting reports emerged during the course of the Shergar investigation about the number and nature of attempts to bargain for the horse’s safe return. Nor could anyone be certain that any of the negotiations truly involved the men who actually took Shergar.
The first round of negotiations, and the best documented one, began with a phone call to Ghislain Drion at Ballymany on the day after the theft and continued through a representative of the Shergar syndicate in Paris. Other negotiations also were held—or not held, depending on who was talking—between the Shergar gang and representatives from Lloyd’s of London, which held much of the insurance on the horse. Rumors also had members of the gang contacting individual shareholders as soon as it became apparent that the syndicate was not going to offer a collective ransom.
Only one thing was certain. The negotiations between Capt. Berry and “Rugby,” along with all the other attempts to broker Shergar’s release, eventually broke down. The only money that actually changed hands was in a swindle that cost Cosgrove £80,000.
Cosgrove was the treating veterinarian for Shergar and many of the other Ballymany horses, and he also had a financial interest in the horse’s welfare. The syndicate that owned Shergar was composed of 40 shares. The Aga Khan retained six shares, and the remaining 34 were offered at £250,000 each while the horse still was racing in 1981. They were snapped up by some of the wealthiest and most powerful men in racing. An offer to join the syndicate must have seemed to Cosgrove a wonderful opportunity at the time. Thirty-three years later the decision to buy into the Shergar syndicate remains a source of grief for the veterinarian.
A provision in the insurance policies obtained by many members of the Shergar syndicate invalidated theft coverage if the owner of the policy paid, or even offered to pay, ransom for a stolen horse. The provision was a common element in theft coverage for horses, fine art, and some other kinds of property. It was written to preclude in-house schemes where the owner of a horse or a valuable painting would arrange a bogus theft, pay the supposed ransom, and then collect under the insurance policy while a trusted confederate held the “ransom” money.
Most members of the Shergar syndicate purchased insurance to protect their investments, and many of those policies included coverage for both mortality and theft. There was no doubt that Shergar had been stolen and shareholders’ theft claims generally were paid in full by the end of the year. The few shareholders who had only mortality coverage, on the other hand, were unable to collect without proof that Shergar was dead. That was impossible because the horse’s remains never were recovered.
Stan Cosgrove was one of the syndicate members left out in the cold with only mortality coverage for Shergar. Vincent O’Brien, John Magnier, and Robert Sangster were other shareholders whose insurance did not cover theft. O’Brien, Magnier, and Sangster sued for damages after their insurance carrier refused to pay, but a Chancery Court judge in London ruled that theft coverage had not been specifically requested by the shareholders.
The insurance carriers had no legal obligation to provide theft coverage on their own initiative, the judge added, because no one thought a horse like Shergar would ever be stolen. Lloyd’s of London began adding theft coverage to equine policies at no charge, but only after Shergar was stolen.
A few months after Shergar was taken, Cosgrove was contacted by a man he believed was part of the gang. The man demanded £90,000 for the return of Shergar, the money to be delivered to a go-between in County Clare named Denis Minogue. He was supposed to take the money from Cosgrove, keep £10,000 for himself, and turn the rest over to the men who held Shergar. The horse then would be returned safe and sound. It sounded too easy, too good to be true, and it was.
In a complicated scheme that involved an off-duty Garda officer, dead drops, telephone calls, and broken promises, Minogue was supposed to leave the £80,000 he got from Cosgrove in the trunk of a car parked at a secret location in County Clare. Only after confirmation that Shergar had been released was Minogue supposed to reveal the location of the automobile. Minogue waited two days for a call that never came. When he returned to the parked automobile, the money was gone.
The scam eventually came to light in October 1983, when a Garda raid turned up a letter from Cosgrove to Minogue demanding the return of the lost £80,000. Minogue already had returned the £10,000 he was paid to serve as agent in the deal, but the rest of Cosgrove’s money never was recovered.
Speculation about who took Shergar, and why, far outnumbered the bits of useful information that trickled in during the months after the theft.
The most credible theory, then and now, was that Shergar’s theft was an Irish Republican Army operation to raise money for arms purchases. Capt. Berry is convinced the IRA was responsible, an opinion shared by insurance underwriter Julian Lloyd. The current belief, based largely on hearsay Lloyd said, was that a few mid-level IRA men who were trying to move up in the organization’s hierarchy engineered Shergar’s theft. The IRA never claimed responsibility because the operation had not been approved at the highest levels.
Sean O’Callaghan in The Informer, his account of a double life as an IRA operative and an informer for the Garda, endorsed an IRA connection to Shergar when he named Kevin Mallon as the mastermind behind the theft. Mallon has denied any involvement, and no reliable evidence has surfaced linking him to the theft. The credibility of O’Callaghan, a man who lied to his IRA fellows for years, also raises some potential red flags about his account of the Shergar operation.
Money for weapons is a straightforward explanation for the IRA taking Shergar, but it may not tell the whole story. Although any number of individuals might have had reason to harbor a grudge against the Aga Khan for business or religious reasons, an act of revenge was discounted as a motive. That may have been premature.
The leading suppliers of weapons to the IRA, historically, have been in the United States and Libya. As the Federal Bureau of Investigation became more proficient at intercepting arms shipments from the States to Ireland, the IRA’s Libyan pipeline became more important.
Weapons, ammunition, and explosives cost money—a lot of money—and the IRA always was strapped for funds. Collecting a ransom for Shergar must have seemed a low-risk way to raise money, but the operation was a disaster. Later in the year the IRA launched a failed attempt to kidnap Galen Weston, a Canadian billionaire living in Ireland. It then successfully managed to kidnap supermarket executive Don Tidey, but he was rescued in a shootout with the police before any ransom was paid.
The failure of three major operations in a single year should have ended, or at least significantly delayed, shipments from Libya, but that did not happen. By the mid-1980s, weapons were flowing from Libya to the IRA. The shipments included firearms, ammunition, rocket-propelled grenades and launchers, and tons of Semtex explosives. During the last half of the decade, estimates were that nearly every bomb the IRA exploded was built around Semtex imported from Libya.
It is speculation at this point, but perhaps ransom was not the principal motive behind taking Shergar. Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi was a Sunni who thought he was put on Earth with a holy mission to unite the entire Muslim world under his leadership, an objective that would put him at odds with the Aga Khan. In this context, the theft of Shergar by the IRA could have been a gesture for the benefit of a valued friend, a favor that Gaddafi repaid with boatloads of weapons. A ransom, if there was one, would be a bonus for the IRA.
A few months after Shergar was stolen, a prominent Thoroughbred breeder was asked about the need for increased security at Irish Thoroughbred farms in the wake of the theft. Not much had changed, the breeder said. Speaking of the Aga Khan, he added: “We don’t have as many enemies as he does.”
Some individuals had difficulty reconciling Shergar’s theft with the belief no Irishman could bring himself to harm a horse. The thought that the inherent Irish love of horses would trump political ambitions is attractive, and naïve. Any thoughts otherwise were dispelled on July 20, 1982, a few months before Shergar was stolen.
That morning, as they did every morning at the same time, members of the Household Cavalry—Queen Elizabeth II’s official bodyguards—were making their way from the regiment’s barracks in Knightsbridge to the Horse Guards Parade and the popular Changing of the Guard ceremony.
At 10:40 a.m., as the procession passed through Hyde Park, a massive nail bomb hidden by the IRA in the trunk of a Morris Marina automobile parked on a side street exploded. Thirty pounds of nails were packed around 25 pounds of explosive and the damage wrought by the bomb was enormous. Four members of the Blues & Royals were killed by the blast, and a number of soldiers and civilians were injured. In addition to the human casualties, seven of the regiment’s horses were killed.
Any compassion the IRA might have had for the welfare of horses obviously had its limits.
Every so often a package containing bits of bone arrives at the Irish Equine Centre addressed to Des Leadon, a well-known equine veterinarian and clinical pathologist who works at the facility. The senders usually claim they’ve stumbled upon the remains of Shergar, but so far they have always been wrong. Leadon keeps a DNA reference sample from Shergar under lock and key in case he ever needs confirmation of a promising relic. If remains of the horse ever show up, the task of identification probably will fall to him.
Meanwhile, 33 years later, the Shergar case remains open. Tantalizing pieces of information occasionally surface, such as a highly redacted cover sheet for an FBI memo suggesting information about the gang that stole Shergar might be found in Spain…but official Garda files remain closed.
Milton C. Toby
Author and attorney Milt Toby has been writing about Thoroughbred racing and legal issues affecting the horse industry for more than 40 years. He won the Dr. Tony Ryan Book Award for Dancer’s Image: The Forgotten Story of the 1968 Kentucky Derby, and two American Horse Publications Editorial Awards for Dancer’s Image and for Noor: A Champion Thoroughbred’s Unlikely Journey from California to Kentucky. He was on the editorial staff of Blood-Horse when Shergar was stolen in 1983, and has been intrigued by the mystery ever since. Milt lives in Central Kentucky with his wife, equine veterinarian Roberta Dwyer; a Dalmatian; a Doberman; and two rescue cats.
- Online Features Editor: Claire Novak
- Designer: Kimberly Reeves
- Visuals Director, Photographer: Anne M. Eberhardt
- Digital Assets Coordinator: Kevin Thompson
- Copy Editors: Eric Mitchell, Tom Hall