Mention Shergar to the man on the street, and assuming you are speaking to someone of a certain vintage, the chances of recognition are much greater than with most champions of the turf. To some degree, that recognition comes from the news coverage of the young stallion’s kidnap from Ballymany Stud in 1983, but while the lurid headlines of the time, and indeed the sensational storyline, was sure to capture public attention, it would be wrong to assume that it was that ultimately tragic episode which catapulted the Aga Khan-bred Shergar to fame.
It’s hard to find a metric which highlights effectively what sets some horses apart from others in terms of their ability to capture the imagination of the general public, but to put things in simple terms, Shergar transcended the back pages, much like George Best and Muhammad Ali did a decade earlier.
Shergar, a son of the under-appreciated Great Nephew, the sire of Classic winners Grundy and Mrs Penny, came from a family of great historical significance. His distaff line traces back to Mumtaz Mahal, an outstanding filly at sprint trips owned by the Aga Khan, father to the present holder of that title, and a hugely influential mare in both racing and breeding achievement.
She won the Queen Mary, Molecomb and Champagne Stakes as a juvenile, and the King George V Stakes and Nunthorpe the following year. She showed scorching speed in her races and was at her best over five furlongs, but still managed to finish second in the 1924 1000 Guineas.
If she was of great importance on the track, her influence on the modern pedigree was immense, with her daughter Mumtaz Begum (Shergar’s sixth dam) producing the outstanding Nasrullah, who sired the likes of Musidora and Never Say Die before being exported to Claiborne Farm in Kentucky by Bull Hancock.
There, he proved one of the most influential sires of all time, his sons including track stars Nashua, Bold Ruler, Bald Eagle and Never Bend, among more than 100 Stakes winners. Of those, Bold Ruler went on to sire the outstanding Secretariat and Never Bend sired Mill Reef, thereby producing two of the greatest champions of the past 50 years on either side of the Atlantic.
Shergar was ridden on both two-year-old starts by Lester Piggott, lowering the juvenile course record when winning the Kris Plate at Newbury on his debut, although that feat seemed less significant when Guy Harwood’s Kalaglow did the same over slightly shorter in the nursery half and hour later despite carrying the burden of top weight.
Sent to Doncaster for the Futurity Stakes, Shergar faced top juveniles Recitation, owned like stablemate Kalaglow by Anthony Bodie, and the winner of the Coventry Stakes at Royal Ascot and Grand Criterium at Longchamp, as well as Ian Balding’s Royal Lodge winner Robellino, who had bested Recitation and Champagne Stakes winner Gielgud at Ascot.
Shergar was well backed on Town Moor, going off 5/2 third choice behind Robellino (2/1) and Recitation (9/4). He proved too good for that pair in the race, but it was Grand Criterium International D’Ostende winner Beldale Flutter who caused a minor surprise by winning for Michael Jarvis and owner Tony Kelly.
Beldale Flutter had finished fourth behind Robellino in the Royal Lodge, and with both he and Recitation unplaced at Doncaster, the official view was that the race was not up to standard. When the European Free Handicap was published in early December, Shergar was given just 8st 9lb, and was rated below the top thirty juveniles of the season.
Not entered in the 2000 Guineas, and barely mentioned in dispatches over the winter, Shergar was freely available at 33/1 for the Derby at the start of the 1981 season. It wasn’t long before the bay with the big white blaze caused bookmakers to revise that opinion.
Lining up for his return in what was then the Guardian Newspapers Classic Trial at Sandown on April 25th, Shergar received the finest backhanded compliment possible from Raceform’s John Sharratt, who made the note h.d.w – shorthand for “has done well” – next to his name on the card, and it was soon clear just how well he had done.
Ridden by Stoute’s new stable jockey, 19-year-old Walter Swinburn, and meeting Kirtling, who had beaten Robellino in the 1980 Chesham Stakes, and Futurity third Sheer Grit, Shergar was backed from 6/4 into Evens. He was entitled to win on form, having 3lb and 4lb in hand of his main rivals on the Free Handicap weights, but the manner of his victory was spectacular; asked to take up the running with well over two furlongs to run, he strode clear to win by 10 lengths from Kirtling.
With rumours rife about the well-being of Champion Juvenile and Derby favourite Storm Bird, and Shergar showing he had trained on exceptionally well, he was slashed to 8/1 for the Blue Riband, leading legendary racing scribe Richard Baerlein to implore Guardian readers to “bet like men” and get stuck into the Stoute colt for Epsom.
The Guardian Classic Trial is rather out of vogue at present, but between 1978 and 1981 it saw the reappearance of four consecutive Derby winners, and Shergar’s demolition job made quite a splash.
After Sandown, he tested his stamina in the Chester Vase, where he met the Ryan Price-trained Belloc, who had finished second over the Derby course and distance in the Warren Stakes, and Craven Stakes fourth Sunley Builds.
Shergar, starting at 4/11, was even more impressive than at Sandown, and won by 12 lengths from Sunley Builds. When Kirtling slammed his rivals by six lengths in the Dee Stakes, the doubters had gone, and so had the fancy prices.
The only possible threat to Derby dominance, it appeared, was Beldale Flutter, the one horse to have beaten Shergar, and the winner of the Mecca-Dante at York, when he had Kalaglow, Robellino and Shergar’s stablemate (and Grundy’s full-brother) Centurius in his wake.
Unfortunately, Beldale Flutter got loose on Newmarket Heath not long before the Derby, collided with a horse from another trainer’s string and ended up falling on the road and badly lacerating a knee. It was a bad accident, but could have been much worse for him and the other horse, who was knocked over by the force of the impact, but somehow escaped serious injury.
Of all the horses in Newmarket to take aim at, Beldale Flutter had chosen Robert Armstrong’s Champion Sprinter Moorestyle, the highest-rated horse in training!
Shergar started at 10/11 for the Derby, with only Chris Thornton’s Mecca-Dante runner-up Shotgun at single figures among his opponents, largely due to the presence of Lester Piggott in the saddle.
Those clutching at straws in opposing Shergar suggested that his teenage jockey lacked the experience and mental strength to cope with the pressure of riding such a hot favourite in the world’s most famous flat race. How wrong they were.
Never has a Derby been so one-sided as in 1981, and while there was considerable scrimmaging on the climb to Tattenham Corner, Swinburn and his mount were blissfully clear of the crowding which badly affected Kalaglow and Glint of Gold, and as the rider eased his mount alongside Riberetto and Silver Season at the crest of the hill, it was clear he was full of running while everything else, with the possible exception of Shotgun, was under pressure.
The moment of truth came when Walter Swinburn asked Shergar to go on early in the straight, and Lester called on Shotgun to follow. Shergar responded instantly and shot away from his field, while Shotgun merely rolled up the camber and was instantly beaten.
Before he had passed the two-furlong marker, the Derby was over as a contest, if it had ever been one. Asked to quicken by Swinburn, this majestic colt went further and further clear, and had he not been eased inside the final hundred yards, his margin of victory would have been closer to 15 lengths than the official 10 over the unfortunate Glint of Gold, but that still represents the widest margin of victory in Derby history.
It’s hardly surprising that none of those who had lined up against him at Epsom fancied another crack in the Irish Derby, and with Swinburn serving a suspension, Lester Piggott renewed his association with Shergar at the Curragh, although only after the Derby winner had himself got loose on his way to the gallops and wandered riderless along the roads of Newmarket until caught by a van driver, a scare Stoute could have done without.
The most interesting of his Curragh opponents were both trained in England, with only old foe Kirtling at 12/1 and Dick Hern’s Cut Above (14/1) trading at less than 20/1 besides the 1/3 favourite.
Cut Above had finished third and second behind Kalaglow in his two juvenile outings before winning Ascot’s White Rose Stakes on his return in April. He was one a number of Hern’s horses to suffer from a virus in the early summer, but had recovered well enough to take his chance in Ireland.
In the end, Shergar confirmed Sandown form with Kirtling almost to the pound, albeit given an easy time by Piggott when the race was in the bag. That rival was 10½ lengths back in fourth, but it was Cut Above who got closest to the winner, finishing a respectable four lengths behind the facile winner. Dance Bid finished third under Walter Swinburn’s father, Wally.
If one criticism of the dual Derby winner remained, it was that he was beating a poor crop of three-year-olds. There’s little doubt that the field assembled for the Derby was not a vintage one by any means, and Shergar needed to defeat his elders in the King George And Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes to ensure his place among the immortals.
Up against him at Ascot were St Leger hero Light Cavalry, winner of the King Edward VII Stakes over course and distance the previous year, Master Willie, runner-up to Henbit in the 1980 Derby and winner of the Benson & Hedges Gold Cup (now the Juddmonte International) and successful in 1981 in both the Coronation Cup and the Eclipse.
Also in the field was Pelerin, fourth in the 1980 Derby, but much improved at four, and the winner of the John Porter, Ormonde and Hardwicke Stakes already that season. Fingal’s Cave, a course specialist who had won over track and trip in both the Churchill Stakes and the Cumberland Lodge, Oaks runner-up and Prix de Diane winner Madam Gay, and the John Porter runner-up Cracaval completed the line-up.
Despite his opponents’ litany of Group-race victories, Shergar started at 2/5 under the reinstated Walter Swinburn, and while he wasn’t as impressive as in his previous wins, a margin of four lengths was decisive, especially as the race turned messy.
It was expected that Piggott would typically ride Light Cavalry for stamina, but instead Lester set a dawdling gallop in the first half mile before picking up the tempo, which compromised those, like Shergar, who were relying on an honest pace, and approaching the home turn, the favourite, tracking the leader and Master Willie on the rail, found himself boxed in by the improving Madam Gay.
Despite this setback, Walter Swinburn was able to make a move on the inside of Light Cavalry, and was soon scampering away from his rivals, with Master Willie, who had pulled hard in the early stages, weakening out of the frame.
Fingal’s Cave, relishing the return to Ascot, ran on with gusto to force a photo with Madam Gay for second. It was a glorious win for a horse who had won his five three-year-old races by a combined margin of 40 lengths, but it was to be the final win of Shergar’s remarkable career.
The intention had been to run Shergar in the Prix de L’Arc de Triomphe, but instead of an easy prep in Kempton’s September Stakes, a late decision was made to allow him to take his chance in the St Leger at Doncaster.
On Town Moor, for once, the fireworks were missing, and Shergar trailed home fourth behind Cut Above, some 11½ lengths behind the winner, with Derby runner-up Glint Of Gold again finishing second.
There had been rumours, printed in the Sporting Life, that Shergar had shown signs of training off at home, but connections denied this, and exhaustive tests found nothing amiss after the St Leger. It’s very possible that he simply failed to stay, and it was expected that, with his health confirmed, he would head to Paris.
Sadly, there was to be no glorious swansong, and with Shergar syndicated for stud duties for a record sum, connections were unwilling to try him at Longchamp without a solid reason for his Doncaster demise.
And so, the career of arguably the most impressive Derby winner in history came to an end, not with a bang, but with a whimper. He was harshly deemed a failure at stud despite producing a Classic winner in Authaal (Irish St Leger), as well as Stakes winners Tashtiya and Dolka, Easter Stakes winner and Lingfield Derby Trial second Tisn’t and Maysoon, winner of the Fred Darling Stakes and placed in both the 1000 Guineas and the Oaks.
From a crop of just 36 foals, this can hardly be called a poor return, but there was a great desire from the public to see Shergar produce a champion in his own image that the disappointment was palpable.
To dwell on the tragedy of his early demise, his failure to produce a son to match his brilliance, or simply his one poor performance in a dazzling career is to do Shergar a disservice. To appreciate his greatness, just dig out the recording of his spectacular Derby romp, ideally with the commentary of BBC Radio’s Peter Bromley, which is much better than the rather stuffy ITV version.
The bare words can’t really communicate the absolute joy of the normally strait-laced Bromley’s delivery (and I’ve cut the boring bits where the caller feels the need to mention some of the other runners) but they do give a feel of the excitement generated by Shergar’s coup de grace.
I make no apologies for the exclamation marks, which are for once truly merited in their entirety:
“Shergar, moving sweetly on the outside takes up the running. He’s gone two lengths clear of Silver Season, and he’s opening up a lead now! Shergar’s going for the guns! He’s gone four, five, six, seven, eight lengths clear! Two furlongs out, the Derby is a procession. Shergar is 10 lengths clear. There’s only one horse in it – you need a telescope to see the rest!”