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Social historians may note one day that last week was when the sport of thoroughbred racing went totally, if splendiferously, bananas. In Kentucky, free-spending Americans, Arabs and Greeks were upstaged by an Englishman, Robert Sangster, in a spree that contravened every financial guideline that has hitherto ruled the bloodstock industry. In England, a parallel craziness seemed to reign. There a 3-year-old colt, acclaimed by two veteran observers as the finest thoroughbred to emerge on either side of the Atlantic in this century, was syndicated for nearly $19 million, a price which, strange as it may seem, has to be the greatest bargain in the history of the turf.
This equine epic came into focus early in the week at the Keeneland yearling sales in Lexington, Ky. (page 17) and ended with pomp and circumstance at a royal occasion at Ascot racecourse, just west of London, on Saturday afternoon. As the horses paraded for the running of the $375,982 King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes, one of the onlookers was Queen Elizabeth II.
Naturally, the huge crowd was pleased to see her, but what the racegoers had really come for was a last, close-range glimpse of another idol, a colt named Shergar, a dark bay with white socks, a white face and perfect manners. As his groom led Shergar around, there was scattered applause—not loud, mind you, rather the sort you might hear at Wimbledon when an unseeded Bulgarian is playing whomever on Court 18. Such a demonstration is rare at the Ascot paddock. "I never heard that before," one spectator said.
Almost unnoticed in the crowd was Shergar's owner, His Highness Shah Karim, Aga Khan, 44, leader of the stateless Ismaili sect of Muslims, graduate of Harvard and one of the world's richest men. He is baggy-suited, plump and balding, with the charisma of a supermarket manager, and if he looked preoccupied, there was an excellent reason for it. In less than half an hour, should Shergar win the race, the Aga Khan would have a paper loss of at least $20 million. Even Shergar seemed moved by the occasion, stepping sedately across the turf with six of the finest thoroughbreds, five of them older, that could be mustered to run against him. Shergar was such a heavy favorite you would have had to give the bookies £11 sterling to win £4 on him, which hardly seemed worthwhile.
Shergar was foaled on March 3, 1978, at the Aga Khan's stud at Ballymany in County Kildare, Ireland. On his dam's side, his blood was all French—he was out of one of the Aga Khan's own broodmares, Sharmeen. He was sired by the entirely English horse Great Nephew, who had earlier fathered the 1975 English Derby winner, Grundy.
Shergar ran twice as a 2-year-old, winning easily his first time out, then losing by 2½ lengths to a horse named Beldale Flutter. (Beldale Flutter went a little crazy in training this year, escaped and crashed into last year's European Horse of the Year, Moorestyle, knocking him over and bruising him badly. Beldale Flutter also put himself out of action for six weeks.)
But nothing went wrong for Shergar after that one defeat. This year he became a legend by pulverizing his opponents in his first four races. In his two preps for the English Derby he won by a total of 22 lengths. In the Derby itself he came home 10 lengths ahead of the field, the greatest margin in the 201-year history of that renowned race. In the Irish Sweeps Derby, Shergar was so far ahead in the stretch that jockey Lester Piggott eased him up a furlong from home and cantered in for a mere four-length victory. Incidentally, Shergar wasn't racing against a bunch of dogs. Glint of Gold, the horse that had trailed 10 lengths behind at Epsom, had won the Italian Derby and later triumphed in the prestigious Grand Prix de Paris.
By Irish Derby time in late June, Shergar had become unbackable as far as most bettors were concerned, though those with deeper pockets in the megadollar world of horse breeding were jostling to bid for syndication shares. It seemed inevitable that the colt would go to stud at the end of this season. There were rumors afloat that offers of more than $40 million had come from U.S. breeders, offers that nearly doubled the record price of $22 million for which Spectacular Bid was syndicated in 1980. It seemed that Shergar would surely be lost to European breeders and that after his last race, the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe in France this October, the colt would be Kentucky bound.
Oblivious to the fuss, Shergar trained for the King George VI at Newmarket Heath, 70 miles north of London, at the farm of Michael Stoute, a 35-year-old Barbadian who is currently England's leading trainer. Stoute lives in a mellow brick house that once belonged to Lord Carnarvon, the discoverer of the tomb of Tutankhamen. ("I'm going to dig up the cellar one day," Pat Stoute, Michael's wife, says. "There might be a gold mask or two down there.") Shergar was stabled across the yard, guarded by, among other things, three Jack Russell terriers and a stable lad who proudly declared that he had been stopped only once in 50 bouts as an amateur featherweight.
What could possibly make Shergar worth $40 million? To begin with, his conformation. The horse isn't unusually big—he weighs 990 pounds—but, as his groom says, "He's got a great big barrel and a big bellows, and he has to have a big heart, too, to pump all the blood and the oxygen for that acceleration he's got." His temperament is also outstanding. "A very relaxed athlete," Stoute says. "He's a dreamy sort of horse," says stablehand Clarry Betts, 68. "He doesn't care bloody sixpence about anything. Then, when he's racing, he does everything right."