On This Day 9.2.1983 Kidnapping of Shergar




Would the name Cresswell mean anything to you? If it does, perhaps you should keep that to yourself, in case you become implicated in one of the greatest unsolved crimes in Irish history.

The main victim, who probably lost his life, was one of the most successful athletes of the 1980s, winning the blue riband event of his sport by the greatest margin ever recorded. In June 1981, at the running of the two hundred and first Epsom Derby, Shergar, with a teenage Walter Swinburn on board, showed a clean pair of heels to the field, in winning by ten lengths. So far ahead was he, that John Mathias, rider of the runner up, Glint of Gold, thought he was actually winning, until he spotted Shergar up ahead in the distance.

Shergar re-asserted his dominance a few weeks later in the Irish Derby at the Curragh, but the longer fourteen furlong trip of the final classic of the year, the St. Leger, was too much for him. The dual Derby winner only managed to finish fourth, and was retired to stud. His career as a stallion would be short.

Shergar had been owned by the Aga Khan. Before the horse’s stud career began, however, he had cashed in some of his chips, and sold shares in the horse to a few very interested buyers. Shergar had a syndicated value of £10m when he began to have sex with other horses for a living. Life as an equine gigolo was certainly preferable to being whipped by undersized men. Shergar the racehorse had been trained by Michael Stoute in England, Shergar the sire was based in Ballymanny Stud in Kildare. If you wanted him to get together with your favourite mare it would set you back at least a cool fifty grand.

In his only season as a professional Dad he sired thirty-five foals. They only ever produced one classic winner between them, and that was in the lowly Irish St. Leger. We never got to find out if the next crop would be any better, because there was none.

On the night of the 8 February 1983 a gang of at least six men, all apparently calling each other ‘Cresswell’, kidnapped Shergar’s groom James Fitzgerald, forced him to identify the Derby-winning colt’s stable, and stole the horse. Fitzgerald was released around midnight, after being given the code phrase—King Neptune—the gang intended to use in ransom negotiations.


What happened next was such a comedy of errors that had Shakespeare been around, he would have changed the plot of  his eponymous play. When Fitzgerald managed to raise the alarm in the early hours of 9 February the manager of the Ballymany Stud phoned the horse’s vet Stan Cosgrove, one of the members of the shareholding syndicate. So, obviously, Stan Cosgrove phoned the Gardai. Well, not exactly, he phoned a friend, as if he was a contestant in Who Wants to Be a Millionaire rather than the victim of a serious crime. The friend then phoned the Minister for Finance, Alan Dukes … as you would. Dukes, probably became part of the chain because he was TD for Kildare and TDs, as we know, have all the answers. Alan Dukes, very sensibly referred the distraught shareholders to the Minister for Justice, Michael Noonan. Why not the Minister for Agriculture, one wonders, surely he would have more to do with horses.

Anyway, after the gang was safely home, having breakfast, and looking forward to reading about their exploits in the morning papers, before making that all important first call, someone told the cops.


That was when Chief Superintendent James Murphy got involved. Here was a man who knew he was a detective, because he wore a trilby hat. During one press interview Chief Superintendent Murphy is supposed to have uttered the immortal phrase ‘A clue … that is what we haven’t got.’ Philip Marlowe he was not, despite the trilby. The lack of clues persuaded Murphy to act on information supplied by psychics and clairvoyants. If you made this stuff up and put it in a story you would spend the rest of your life trying to find an agent for your work.

No one ever found poor Shergar. When last seen he was being ridden by Elvis Presley in the Adolf Hitler stakes in Atlantis. The IRA were blamed for the theft at the time, this theory being reinforced by the 1999 memoir written by the IRA informer Sean O’Callaghan.

Whoever stole Shergar probably overlooked two salient facts. Firstly, horses are bigger, stronger and more highly strung than human kidnap victims. The fashionable theory is that the kidnpappers were forced to kill their victim within hours because they had no clue how to handle him. Secondly, the Aga Khan didn’t own Shergar anymore, having sold thirty-three of the forty shares in the horse. This made ransom negotiations a little bit like a White House press conference. No ransom was ever paid and Shergar has not been seen since. If still alive he would be approaching human middle-age.

Somebody finally told the Garda Siochana that Shergar had been kidnapped, thirty five years ago, on this day.