Sunday, October 11, 2015

Life Imitating Art . . . Or Not

                                                                     Milton C. Toby photograph
By Milton C. Toby

A few months after European Horse of the Year Shergar was taken from the Aga Khan's Ballymany Stud near the Curragh Race Course in Ireland, an enterprising reporter from the Irish Press asked author Dick Francis about the theft. Francis was in Dublin promoting his 22nd novel, The Danger, which featured a private business that specialized in rescuing the victims of kidnappings. The protagonist of The Danger once worked for Lloyd's of London, the insurance company that held much of the insurance on Shergar, so there was a connection between the real and the fictional--tenuous but sufficient--to pique the newspaper's interest.

The reporter wondered if Francis, whose horse racing novels were best sellers around the world, had any insights about the theft of Shergar, a real-life mystery that would become the sport's most famous cold case.

"This book [The Danger] is about people, rather than horses, being kidnapped," Francis explained. "One of my other books, Blood Sport written in the '60s, was about a classic winner from England who is taken to America and kidnapped over there. I have been accused more than once of giving crooks ideas. I certainly hope I didn't give them the idea for what they have done with Shergar."

It was a brief interview that morphed into a promotional exercise for Francis's then-current book, and also for an older one. No real news there; not a surprise.

I've been a fan of Dick Francis for years. The reminder of a long-forgotten book that might have some bearing on my own research into the theft of Shergar encouraged me to track down and reread Blood Sport. Written in 1967, 16 years before the theft of Shergar, Blood Sport still is a good read--and an interesting lesson in the problem of reliable horse identification in the pre-DNA era.

There is no real question about whether Gene Hawkins will find the stolen stallion, Chrysalis. Hawkins is a Dick Francis hero, after all, and they tend to be very good at what they do. The book turns on the mechanics of the search and how Hawkins will prove that the horse he recovers, a nondescript bay with no distinctive markings, actually is Chrysalis. Hawkins makes his preliminary identification based on the horse's odd appetite for sardines but in the end he must rely on an in-person examination by the stallion's groom ("lad" for Anglophiles), who is flown to the States from England and driven across country to verify the horse's identity.

The Cross of St. Bridget, a patron saint of Ireland, watches over horses and riders at the Curragh Race Course.
A few hundred yards to the north of the Curragh, Shergar was taken from Ballymany Stud.
Copyright 2015 Milton C. Toby
"Sure I'd know him," Sam Kitchens tells Hawkins. "Maybe I couldn't pick him out of a herd, now, but I'd know him close to. The way his hide grows, and little nicks in his skin. I wouldn't have forgotten those." Kitchens makes the identification after Hawkins spirits the stallion away from the ranch where the horse thieves were holding him. Francis doesn't deal with what must be a problem, though, convincing stud book officials in two countries that the horse really is Chrysalis.

Unlike Chrysalis, Shergar never was recovered. The best evidence suggests that the horse was killed shortly after he was taken from Ballymany and the question of a positive identification never became an issue. In any case, just about anyone in Ireland would have recognized Shergar on sight and there was DNA analysis if needed. Bits of bone purported to be the remains of the horse still turn up at the Irish Equine Centre from time to time. So far, though, researchers there have been able to dismiss the claims without utilizing a DNA reference sample kept under lock and key.

Conventional wisdom points to members of the Irish Republican Army as masterminds for the theft of Shergar. No individual or organization has claimed responsibility, however, and the Irish police have not charged anyone. The disappearance of Shergar is a mystery worthy of Dick Francis.



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