This weekend, both Milt Toby and I will be at the Southern Kentucky Book Festival in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Milt will be there to talk about Taking Shergar, his book on the kidnapping of Shergar, 1981 Epsom Derby winner, and the mystery surrounding the horse’s ultimate fate. I can’t wait for the chance to talk to Milt in person about his latest book, which I profiled here earlier this month. To follow up my profile of Taking Shergar, here are Milt Toby’s Author Answers!
What is the advantage of writing about a story that many people think they know already? What does that give you as a writer?
When I’m considering a topic for a long-form article or a book I always ask two questions: First, what do people already know or, more importantly, what do they think they already know? Second, is there anything relevant left to say? I need good answers to both questions before committing several months of my time to a long-form piece or probably years to a book project.
I like readers to have at least a passing familiarity with my topic but not so much that writing more on my part is redundant. Mention Dancer’s Image to even a casual horse racing fan and the odds are good that the stock response will be: “didn’t he win the Kentucky Derby and then get disqualified for a positive drug test?” Readers have a similar reaction when they hear the name Shergar: “wasn’t he that racehorse that was stolen by terrorists and held for ransom?” Those answers are good indications that readers already know something about the story I want to tell. If the next question they ask is this—“I wonder what happened with that?”—I’m reasonably confident that people will know enough about my topic to start reading and are interested enough in learning more to keep turning the pages.
The challenge then is to come up with something new, a narrative that starts with what people already know about the story and then expands on that knowledge base. For me, the research is almost always much more fun than the actual writing. That was certainly the case with Taking Shergar. One of the early readers evaluating my proposal was not enthusiastic about the project because he said there was nothing left to say. As things turned out, there was a lot still to say about the intersection of economics in the Republic of Ireland and the Troubles in Northern Ireland that made the theft of Shergar by the Irish Republican Army inevitable.
In England and Ireland, Shergar was a star horse, winner of the Epsom and Irish Derbies. How does Shergar compare with American horses of his era or even of the last decade or so?
Objective evaluation of Shergar and others was a favorite exercise as the 20th Century wound down. By far the best of his generation, Shergar won the 1981 Epsom Derby by a record 10 lengths, albeit in a relatively slow time, and he was the consensus choice as Europe’s best racehorse that year. Michael Church, a noted Epsom Derby historian, ranked Shergar as the best Derby winner of the 1980s. Prominent turf writers John Randall and Tony Morris put Shergar as 18th among the century’s “World Top 200 Flat Champions.” European champion Sea-Bird topped that list, with American Triple Crown winner Secretariat second.
It’s fair to say that Shergar was one of the best horses ever to race. I joined the editorial staff at the Blood-Horse in 1973, Secretariat’s Triple Crown year. His Belmont Stakes win was the most dominant performance I’ve ever seen, but it’s not a stretch at all to include Shergar’s Epsom Derby in the same conversation. Ultimately, though, rankings are not what set him apart and not what made him an attractive target for the Irish Republican Army. Shergar was a national hero in Ireland—for many people there the horse still is—and he raced for one of the richest men in the world. After Shergar’s retirement, he was paraded through the streets of Newbridge as a horse syndicated for £10 million. For a guerilla group starved for cash, everything about Shergar screamed: “steal me.”
What was your biggest challenge in tying together all of the disparate threads that made up this story?
There were plenty of moving parts in the story: the prominence of the Aga Khan IV’s family and their influence on racing that continues to this day, Shergar’s dominance as a three-year-old, his retirement and syndication, the “Troubles” and the IRA, the theft and subsequent investigations, ransom negotiations, the conspiracy theories, disputes over insurance liability, and the involvement of the Mobius Group. The cast of characters was huge, and the narrative was complicated because no single individual played a dominant role throughout the story. My job as a writer, and the task I ultimately gave my readers, both would have been much simpler if the story had revolved around one person from start to finish.
Unfortunately, horse racing sometimes doesn’t work that way. Interests shifted. The Aga Khan IV raced Shergar, but ownership and responsibility shifted to a large syndicate after his retirement to stud; trainer Sir Michael Stoute and jockey Walter Swinburn moved on to other horses and championships; the police were interested for a while but soon found other crimes to investigate; insurance companies didn’t get involved until after the theft; players in the conspiracy theories weren’t identified until later. Even Shergar, the centerpiece of the story, played a relatively small part in the story’s timeline.
I wanted a dominant figure throughout the book but couldn’t find one. Instead, I found myself working on transitions from one person to another, to another, and to another. I hope it was successful.
What was the most surprising thing you learned in your research on Shergar and his abduction?
The research was full of surprises but far and away the most interesting was the involvement of the Mobius Group in the investigation. One of the first people I interviewed during a trip to London was Julian Lloyd, an insurance man from Lloyd’s of London who mentioned the Mobius Group, which he said was some sort of hidden band of psychics in the United States that worked on secret projects for the Central Intelligence Agency. He didn’t know anymore and had no current information.
It took 18 months to track down Stephan Schwartz, the director of the mystery organization. The Mobius Group was no longer operating, and Schwartz had moved on to other pursuits. I visited him at his home on an island off the coast of Washington State, where he gave me access to the Mobius Group’s Shergar files—several boxes of material about an investigation that had remained a secret for 35 years.
The Mobius Group was not a super-secret spy organization, far from it. The organization instead was a commercial business set up to offer the services of a group of remote viewers. For the uninitiated, remote viewing is a technique that allows individuals to see or sense things that are located somewhere else. As Schwartz explained to me, the commercial applications of remote viewing are endless, from assisting local police recover the body of a missing girl in Pennsylvania, to finding the wreckage of an airplane lost in the mountains, to locating a shipwreck resting on the bottom of the ocean. The US government has funded significant research into remote viewing, but the Mobius Group never worked for the intelligence services. It sounds like magic and it isn’t always successful, but when remote viewing works, the results can be mind-boggling.
In October 1983, some eight months after Shergar went missing, a group of insurers hired the Mobius Group to conduct an off-the-record search for the horse or his remains. The search was inconclusive, but the remote viewers also produced detailed descriptions of several of the people involved in the theft and other information that warranted further investigation. Sadly, official interest had waned, and little additional work was done on the case. The involvement of the Mobius Group remained a secret until I followed Julian Lloyd’s sketchy lead to Stephan Schwartz and the Mobius Group’s files.
Do you think we will ever find out what ultimately happened to Shergar or who was responsible for his kidnapping and likely untimely death?
No, not with absolute certainty. I put together a solid circumstantial case that implicates the Irish Republican Army in Shergar’s theft, and I’m confident that it was the IRA. No other explanation makes any sense. But to know what happened beyond a reasonable doubt, the evidentiary standard for a criminal conviction, one of two very unlikely things have to happen.
A sworn confession from one of the people who took Shergar would do it, but the odds of that happening now, more than 35 years after the fact, are long. Sean O’Callaghan, a police informant within the top echelon of the IRA, was not directly involved with the theft but he almost certainly knew the men who took part. O’Callaghan said that Shergar was machine-gunned to death a few days after he was stolen and also identified the IRA men who took the stallion in his autobiography, The Informer. In a sworn statement, one of the police officers who investigated the theft later said that O’Callaghan’s account of Shergar’s theft was supported by the official record. One of the men identified by O’Callaghan as the brains behind the theft, Kevin Mallon, lives near Dublin and spends his days visiting local off-track betting shops. Whether there is actual evidence of Mallon’s involvement and that of the others in the closed police files remains to be seen.
The case remains open, officially at least, but the investigation has been dormant for decades. No one ever was arrested, charged, or convicted.
Thank you, Milt, for contributing to the Sir Barton Project! I thoroughly enjoyed reading Taking Shergar and highly recommend Milt’s book to anyone who loves a great book on horse racing and a good mystery. Order the book here and see Milt (and myself) at SOKY Book Fest on Saturday, April 27th.