Maybe Allah Will Provide, but the Aga Khan Wouldn't When Horsenappers Demanded a Ransom

updated 02/28/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/28/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

That night, Feb. 8, an icy wind blew across the pastures of the 50-acre Ballymany Stud, in Newbridge, 40 miles from Dublin. Millions of dollars worth of Thoroughbreds were in their stalls in the neat yard or grazing in the darkened fields. When the doorbell rang at the stone farmhouse, the head groom's 8-year-old daughter bounded up to answer it, certain her eldest brother was arriving home from work at a nearby stud. Instead the child was dazzled by lights, and armed men pushed by her. Pointing guns at her father, Jim Fitzgerald, they forced him into the stallion's barn to identify the prized possession of his employer, Karim Aga Khan. This was the 5-year-old Shergar, one of the world's most valuable Thoroughbreds. The strapping bay, with a blaze of white down his face and four white feet, was loaded into a trailer and driven off. With Mrs. Fitzgerald and her brood (the couple have seven children) locked in the house, the masked bandits now took her husband, whom they forced to lie on the floor of a van, on a disorienting tour of the countryside before releasing him 22 miles from home.

The 46-year-old Aga Khan, who was in St. Moritz, learned of his loss before dawn—and of the kidnappers' demand for a $2.7 million ransom. In 1981 he had turned down $24 million from Americans for Shergar, opting instead to syndicate the horse for $18 million to help improve the stock of European breeders.

In the days following the horsenapping, the trail to the thieves went cold. Irish police were confused by phone calls from hoaxers. One message reported the horse had injured an eye and had been humanely destroyed.

Whatever the truth, the crime focused fresh, and unwanted, attention on the Aga Khan. Though he is a familiar figure at major races (Shergar won the 1981 English and Irish Derbies in his green-and-red silks), the Harvard-educated Karim cultivates a low profile. He is the antithesis of his playboy father, Aly, who from 1949 to 1954 was married to actress Rita Hayworth, and of his even more flamboyant grandfather, who, after 72 years as the head of the 15 million Ismaili Muslims, bequeathed his spiritual kingdom to the current Aga Khan in 1957. The Ismailis, who are scattered around the world, are distinguished in Islam by their fealty to a living Imam, in this case the Aga Khan. He is the direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammed—and the 49th Imam. On passing over his son to pick his grandson as his successor, Aga Khan III explained, "The Muslim world needs a young man who has been brought up in the atomic age."

The choice was sound. Although the Aga Khan has no temporal powers, he does have responsibility for his subjects' economic well-being. Fittingly, His Highness (his staff calls him "H.H.") seems as much businessman as holy man. He wears conservative business suits and peppers his conversation with M.B.A. terms such as "cost effectiveness" and "downstream investment."

An intense, even driven man, he oversees dozens of businesses (among them a jute mill on the Ivory Coast, hotels in Kenya, a marble factory in Pakistan) and charitable projects. With funds obtained in part from his rotund grandfather, who on the occasion of his 50th, 60th and 70th years as Imam was given his weight in gold, diamonds and platinum, respectively, Karim started a foundation in 1967 devoted to building schools, hospitals and housing in the Third World.

The Aga Khan, of course, has interests closer to home. The development of a $750 million playground for the rich on Sardinia's Emerald Coast was his idea. Disgruntled Sardinian locals have called him "the God of cement" and accused him of ruining the pristine coastline. In a moment of fury two months ago, he resigned as head of the Emerald Coast consortium. But a friend called H.H.'s resignation "a big bluff. Even if he quits for good, he still owns most of the coast." He has since resumed his post.

Normally, Karim hides his feelings behind a calm exterior. Like many rich men, he is suspicious of outsiders, who may want to take advantage of him. In fact, he has been known to spy on employees he suspects of disloyalty. "He is a bit paranoid," says a former staffer.

The Aga Khan does not flaunt his life-style, but nevertheless it is lavish. He has a tapestry-filled house and an office set in the woods surrounding Chantilly, France, and another home, which is a former monastery, on Paris' expensive Ile de la Cité His wife, Sally, 43, a former English model, and their three children (ages 8 to 12) divide their year among the homes in France, Sardinia and Switzerland, where they rent a chalet in St. Moritz.

H.H. travels by private Grumman jet, often touching down near the racetracks where his horses perform. He is enthralled with the intricacies of breeding, which he calls "a game of chess with nature." Shergar was the culmination of his program, begun in the early '60s, to improve his stable. "The horse was his dream come true," says an American associate. "Everything the family sought came to fruition in this stallion." In 1981 the Aga sold 34 shares in the horse (retaining 15 percent) to leading European breeders. Not all the syndicate members insured their investment. Annual premiums on bloodstock are exorbitant—often 30 percent of the insured value of a horse. Hence wealthy owners simply write off their losses.

In the end it may be Ireland that suffers most from the Shergar snatch. "If the horse isn't returned, it could have serious effects on our economy," says Peter McKeever, managing director of a noted bloodstock firm. Adds another industry observer, "Shergar was an important symbol. He was one step toward building the Irish racing industry to the level of Kentucky's."

With the horse gone, stud owners—a little late—are considering locking the stall door. Ballymany had no watchman on duty. Security hasn't been a concern on most Thoroughbred farms. In fact, only last year one of the Aga Khan's executives reportedly turned down a closed-circuit-TV security system for Ballymany that would have cost as little as $20.50 a week.

Shergar's only value to his abductors is to extort a ransom. Without his registration papers, he is worthless, which surely the gunmen knew. What they probably did not reckon with was the steadfast Aga Khan, who appeared unwilling to barter a share of his kingdom for a horse.

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