Sunday, June 21, 2015

Sefton's Story, or Why I Love Research

                                                                     Milton C. Toby photograph
by Milton C Toby

Writing often is a solitary chore, at least for me, especially with a deadline looming. Researching a book or magazine article, on the other hand, usually is an enjoyable exercise in fettering out minutia and finding links between seemingly unrelated  facts. But more about that later.

July 20 fell on a Tuesday in 1982.

That morning, as they did every morning at the same time, members of the Household Cavalry--Queen Elizabeth II's official bodyguards--were making their way from the regiment's barracks in Knightsbridge to the Horse Guards Parade. The horses and riders were en route to the popular Changing of the Guard ceremony. At 10:40 am, as the procession passed through Hyde Park, a massive nail bomb hidden in the trunk of a Morris Marina parked on a side street exploded.

Thirty pounds of nails were packed around 25 pounds of explosive and the damage wrought by the bomb was enormous. Four members of the Blues & Royals were killed by the blast, and a number of soldiers and civilians were injured. In addition to the human casualties, seven of the regiment's horses were killed.

Sefton, an Irish-bred draft cross which had served with the regiment for several years, suffered severe injuries, including a severed jugular vein and 34 other shrapnel wounds. Many of Sefton's wounds were life-threatening; after 90 minutes of emergency treatment and eight hours of surgery by a team of cavalry and civilian veterinarians the horse's chances of survival were estimated at 50-50. Major Noel Carding, Veterinary Officer of the Household Calvary, directed the emergency first aid for Sefton and the other injured horses. He was said to be the first British military veterinarian in more than a half-century to treat cavalry horses suffering with wartime injuries.

Sefton survived the bombing and eventually returned to duty with the regiment as a national hero. Donations in Sefton's name exceeded 600,000 pounds and were used to construct a surgical wing at the Royal Veterinary College. He was retired from military service in 1984 and spent the rest of his years at the Home of Rest for Horses. His rider, Michael Pedersen, also survived the bombing but ever after was plagued with post-traumatic stress disorder. He committed suicide in 2012 after killing his two children.

The Irish Republican Army claimed responsibility for the Hyde Park bombing, and for another bombing later in the day at Regent's Park that killed seven members of a military band from the Royal Green Jackets regiment. The attacks were low points in Irish-British relations during the "Troubles." Jonathan Irwin, a prominent Irish bloodstock agent and head of the Goffs Thoroughbred sales organization, was disgusted by the bombings.

"Common ground between Ireland
and England"
Copyright 2009 Milton C. Toby
"I thought it important that England should realize that many Irish people felt real horror at the incident," Irwin wrote in his autobiography, "Jack & Jill: The Story of Jonathan Irwin." He organized a fund-raising effort that raised 47,000 Irish pounds from private donors. The money was used to purchase six cavalry horses for the British military.

"Horses have always been a kind of common ground between Ireland and England," Irwin wrote, "and I thought this would be a quiet, but symbolic, way of joining hands across the sea."  

So what's the connection between Sefton and research?

I came across Sefton's story without actually looking for it. I was in Ireland a few weeks ago doing preliminary research for a book about Shergar, a Thoroughbred stallion that was stolen from an Irish stud farm owned by the Aga Khan in 1983. Conventional wisdom is that the horse was taken by the Irish Republican Army and held for ransom--he never was recovered and no ransom was paid--but I think the story is more complicated. I touched base with Jonathan Irwin in County Kildare, who I knew from my days at The Blood-Horse, which led me to his book, which led me to Sefton.

Looking for one story, I stumbled across another interesting one. And that's why I love research!



  1. Wow, Milt. Fascinating, if horrific, stuff. I love your writing style, but the way. And now I want to know more about Shergar!

  2. I came across Sefton's story while talking with Capt. Sean Berry, who was head of the Irish Bloodstock Breeders Association at the time and who was involved in some of the negotiations for Shergar's return. I questioned Irish Republican Army involvement because of my perception of the close connection between the Irish people and their horses. Capt. Berry said that my speculation was wrong. He brought up the Hyde Park bombing as proof that the IRA had no qualms about killing people and horses. It's still a puzzle that the IRA never has claimed responsibility for taking Shergar. I'm planning to post updates on the Shergar research from time to time.