Shergar was a champion Irish racehorse and winner of the 1981 Epsom Derby by a record ten lengths the longest winning margin in the race’s 226-year history. A bay colt with a distinctive white blaze, Shergar was named European Horse of the Year in 1981 and was retired from racing that September and was looking forward to a life of stud.
Two years later, on 8th February 1983, a foggy winter’s evening in Ireland, a group of men wearing balaclavas and armed with guns turned up at the Ballymany Stud Farm in Co Kildare and kidnapped Shergar with the intention of holding him to ransom. Shergar was arguably the greatest racehorse to have ever lived but twenty-five years after he was kidnapped from the mystery of exactly what happened to him after he was snatched that night still persists. Then, as now, the story was one that gripped the world. From racing enthusiasts to ordinary members of the public, everyone wanted to know who had taken Shergar, why they had done so and what became of him and then, as now, no definite answers were forthcoming.
What happened next set the tone for a police operation that has been called “a caricature of police bungling”. Shergar’s groom James Fitzgerald called the stud farm manager, who for some reason called Shergar’s vet. The vet then called a racing associate, Sean Berry, who in turn called Alan Dukes, the Irish Finance Minister. It didn’t seem to occur to anyone to call the police and it wasn’t until eight hours had elapsed did anyone call the Gardaí on the next day.
Leaving aside the tragedy and the almost certain undignified death of Shergar the police investigation was the best bit of the story when on 9th February the investigation into one of sport’s greatest whodunnits began. The first problem for the police was the kidnapping’s timing because Shergar was taken the day before Ireland’s biggest racehorse sale – a day on which horseboxes were driven on roads across the country, making an impossible task to find the box containing the kidnapped horse..
The investigation was further complicated because officers from both Dublin and County Kildare were put on the case. The two forces reportedly refused to share information and believed that they were in direct competition with each other.
Leading the investigation into the theft was trilby-wearing Chief Superintendent Jim “Spud” Murphy, who immediately became a media hero because of his Inspector Clousseau appearance and tactics. His detection techniques were unconventional and a variety of clairvoyants, psychics and diviners were called in to help. During one famous interview Mr Murphy told reporters: “A clue?… that is what we haven’t got.”
Jim “Spud” Murphy became a regular on television news bulletins and he did the reputation of the Irish police enormous damage. My dad would watch all of the news programmes just to watch Murphy continue to make a clown of himself and by the end of the latest interview he would be in fits of laughter and I am sure that if he had had a video recorder he would have taped them all.
Despite numerous reported sightings and rumours of secret negotiations in the days following the theft there was little new information and a news hungry press pack began to focus their attention on Spud Murphy, ridiculing his inept investigation and his unconventional approach. During one press conference six photographers turned up wearing trilbies, identical to the police chief, after which, although he continued to lead the investigation, he was given a much lower public profile.