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Wednesday, 12 September 2018

Shergar

Beaten just twice, under mitigating circumstances, in his eight-race career, Shergar owes his place among the racing greats primarily to his 10-length win in the 1981 Derby, still the widest winning margin in the 233-year history of the race. Indeed, winning jockey Walter Swinburn always insisted that Shergar had so much in reserve that he could have won by twice as far, had he so desired.

A striking bay colt, with a white blaze and four white socks, Shergar made his debut for Michael Stoute in a maiden race, the Kris Plate, over a mile at Newbury in September 1980. Sent off the 11/8 favourite, Shergar won by 2½ lengths under Lester Piggott, setting a course record in the process. Stepped up in class for the William Hill Futurity (nowadays the Racing Post Trophy) at Doncaster the following month, Shergar finished second, beaten 2½ lengths, behind Beldale Flutter.

However, it was 1981, his three-year-old season, that was to prove the “annus mirabilis” for the son of Great Nephew. He reappeared in the Guardian Classic Trial at Sandown in April, which he won by 10 lengths, and hacked up by 12 lengths in the Chester Vase in May, with Swinburn sitting motionless. His dramatic progress from two to three years saw him promoted to 11/10 favourite for the Derby the following month, in the absence of the injured Beldale Flutter.

In the Derby, Shergar took the lead rounding Tattenham Corner and displayed a breathtaking turn of foot, drawing away to win by 10 lengths, eased down. Radio commentator Peter Bromley summed up the scene on Epsom Downs when he said, “You need a telescope to see the rest.”

Three weeks later, Shergar travelled to the Curragh for the Irish Derby where, in the absence of the suspended Swinburn, he was partnered once again by Lester Piggott. Shergar was never out of a canter to win by 4 lengths and, reunited with Swinburn and taking on older horses for the first time, won the King George and Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot by an identical margin the following month.

Instead of heading straight for the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp in October, a change of plan saw him line up for the St. Leger at Doncaster, for which he started 6/4 favourite. However, the writing was on the wall a long way from home and Shergar weakened to finish only fourth, beaten 9 lengths, behind Cut Above, trained by Major Dick Hern and ridden by Joe Mercer. Following that defeat, Shergar wasn’t entered in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe and had run his last race. Nevertheless, he had amassed £295,000 in prize money during 1981 and was voted European Racehorse of the Year.

At the end of his racing career, Shergar retired to the Ballymany Stud, County Kildare, and was syndicated for £10 million by his breeder and owner, the Aga Khan, who hoped that the colt would enhance his breeding operation. In his first season at stud, Shergar put 42 of the first 44 mares he covered in foal, but shortly before the start of his second season disaster struck.

Shergar was kidnapped from the Ballymany Stud by an armed gang on Wednesday, February 3, 1983. He apparently met a gruesome end when shot dead by his kidnappers in a stable in County Leitrim shortly afterwards, but his body has never been found. Over 30 years later, the file on the disappearance of Shergar remains open, but as Walter Swinburn put it, “I always say that the ending can never spoil the great memories.”

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