Racing: Shergar still a measure of Classic greatness

Chris McGrath recalls the Aga Khan's 1981 Derby winner whose spirit looms over today's race
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The Independent Online

Few sports borrow as much from their greatest settings as racing. A summer day at Lord's or Wimbledon may evoke Compton or Borg, but cannot suggest how each would have fared against Warne or Federer. At Epsom, however, the fairly constant median of ability in a Derby field stirs far more enlightening images. The carousel has turned 25 times since 1981, spreading the horses apart as they run downhill, until a champion breaks free. And still the shadow of Shergar flickers clear of every other generation, his winning margin of 10 lengths unmatched in the annals of a race first run in 1780.

Today Christophe Soumillon wears the same green and red silks on the hot favourite, Visindar, as did Walter Swinburn on Shergar. The Aga Khan has owned many champions in between, including three further Derby winners in Shahrastani (1986), Kahyasi (1988) and Sinndar (2000). Should Visindar prove a class above his contemporaries, however, it will always be Shergar against whom he must be measured.

Of course the immortality of Shergar was hastened by his infamous end. Abducted after just one season at stud, he is presumed to have been killed by captors incompetent to manage a thoroughbred stallion. The fact that his remains were never found has yielded an endless libretto for soap opera in print and film.

But today should remind everyone of what made him so precious in the first place. He was an awesome athlete, emblazoned down his face by a white streak that seemed to compare him with lightning. He scorched through the spring and summer of 1981, winning the Classic Trial at Sandown by 10 lengths and the Chester Vase by 12.

His partnership with a dauntless teenage rider had the sporting pages agog and he started at 10-11 favourite for the Derby. Swinburn later described it as "our easiest and eeriest race".

His father, Wally, had also been a top jockey and had warned him to expect a rough, bruising race. In the event Shergar proved so slick that he was able to glide round in third place, in a field of 18, before impatiently pulling his way to the front coming down the hill. And that was it. With his low, brisk stride, he scuttled away into history. With a furlong to run, Swinburn heard a voice across the rails shouting: "Come on Lester!" Fearing that Piggott's mount, Shotgun, had Shergar in his sights, he picked up his whip. With characteristic modesty, Swinburn would later excuse anyone for "thinking that only the great man would be given a horse as good as Shergar to ride."

Swinburn was suspended for the Irish Derby, and replaced by the inevitable Piggott. Shergar hacked up by four lengths, and replicated the feat against older horses in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes. It is a measure of how times have changed that the St Leger was still fashionable enough to draw him to Doncaster, but the extra distance and long season finally confounded him.

Retired to stud in Co Kildare, he was syndicated in 34 shares of £250,000. His kidnappers - probably the IRA - seem to have assumed that he remained in the sole ownership of the Aga Khan, whose global property and business interests were estimated at £2 billion.

The bloodstock market was on the brink of an unprecedented boom and Shergar was an immensely valuable stallion, yet security at Ballymany Stud remained naïve. A week before his second covering season, on 8 February 1983, a gang broke into the farm and at gunpoint forced the head groom, James Fitzgerald, to identify the champion and load him into a horsebox.

While a media circus began pouring compost into this most fertile of dramas, and the trilbied "Spud" Murphy lent the investigation a flavour of "Carry On Detecting", the kidnappers soon realised their scheme would be barren. Their ransom demands dried up after four days, and an IRA informer would later claim that they had shot the panicked stallion soon after his capture.

Naturally that did not prevent some ludicrous theories and "sightings". He was pulling a gypsy caravan. He had been taken to a petfood abattoir. Colonel Gaddafi had been seen riding him across the Libyan desert. Nowadays the impostors tend to be skeletal, but DNA tests have renounced every find to date.

Shergar's most tangible legacy was tragically limited. He sired only 36 foals, and though five won stakes races, none of them had enough ability to prolong his influence on the breed. None the less his name will remain indelible on the Turf. Ultimately the celestial quality of a mere animal drew the vilest from mankind. Visindar could pay no greater tribute today than to remind everyone of the pristine brilliance of Shergar when first carved on to the Derby pantheon, before fact and fiction in turn began to apply their monstrous flourishes.