Stories from Des Leadon, Part 7

And then, finally, I opened the bag under the glare of the spotlights. A skull alright. With a bullet hole in its forehead… iStock/Surlya Silsaksom

It was a beautifully sunny late afternoon. Horses had just been brought in for the evening feed that had been prepared for them, The head stud groom was a kindly man. He had taken great pleasure in showing the pride of the farm, the mighty Shergar, to the two young girls. On their first visit to Ireland together, they had turned up at the main gate and asked if they could just see the wonder horse, the horse who had filled their imaginations as he had filled so many others, with wonderment as he had sauntered to his series of fantastic success the previous summer.

The man was the perfect handler for this very kind horse and the girls were allowed by to fill their eyes with his gleaming chestnut coat, rippling muscles, and distinctive white face. They took their souvenir photographs, gave the stallion one last pat, and as they were leaving his stable, were told to wait for a moment at the door. Shergar’s handler gave them a thoughtful additional keepsake, a pluck of the tail hairs from the mighty horse. The souvenirs were bound together into the photo album that contained memories of their visit to the emerald isle, the land of saints and scholars. The album was filed in the bookcase in their continental European hometown and promptly forgotten.

Sadly and shamefully, in the black and bleak days of that awful era, the sainted isle also contained the very blackest of rogues. They were men who were as casual about the taking of this horse’s life as they were about the taking of the lives of so many people who lived there and on the neighboring island, The story is too well known to repeat, but the details of what exactly happened and the precise whereabouts of the body of poor Shergar attained a “Marie Celeste-like” aura of mystery and fascination that continues to this very day. From time to time, frenetic activity erupts from nowhere if there is any prospect of the “mystery” being solved.

My phone rang, and before any of the usual pleasantries could be exchanged, the excited and breathless caller announced: “He’s coming up!” In the context of this story it is easy to know what the caller was talking about. At the time, though, I had no idea and when the “S” word was uttered, I cared even less. There had been just too many hoaxes, and I was definitely not a Shergar-hunter.

“No, no, you don’t understand, this is for an insurance claim!”

Many horse owners insure their horses. Only the elite of the Thoroughbred stallions are syndicated among shareholders, who are willing to pay very substantial premiums to protect their very large investments. Those who provide this form of insurance are, ultimately, the Underwriters, not the insurance agents, not the insurance brokers, but the underwriting desks of major insurance companies. At the time, most were, and many still are, based in the Lloyds buildings in the heart of the City of London.

Underwriters are advised on veterinary matters by their own specialist equine veterinary surgeons, with whom they consult regularly in the normal course of their business. I was one of those advisors. Some of the shareholders in the Shergar syndicate had insured their investments in the horse through the Lloyds insurance market. The recovery of his long-lost body had implications for the potential payment of insurance claims.

However, no one was going to pay out on that horse, or any other, without veterinary-certified proof of identity.

“Can you accept the carcass and provide proof of identity?” was the follow-up from my caller. “If not, we will have to fly someone in to do it.”.

National pride was at stake here. If it was going to be identified, then it was much better that it was done here in Ireland and by an Irish team, than by a potentially headline-grabbing group of outsiders whose utterances might inadvertently have been less aware of the sensitivities than a home based team. My chairman agreed.

“Alright” I said, with a heavy heart, little imaging what I was going to let myself in for.

Headlines returned to my thoughts within moments of replacing the receiver and the telephone rang within microseconds. The national broadcaster was on the line.

“It’s coming aright, and they want you to do the post mortem, but they want bona fides first.” The “they” were the sort of people few of us would ever wish to have any contact with. The “they” also included an elite film crew. Why ? Because there was money to be made. Not only from the insurance claim, but also from the world-wide story. A lot of money. So much so, that 17 separate TV companies from around the world rang that morning, seeking quotes and the exclusive rights to film the identification process. They rang, and rang, and rang again, incessantly.

The office switchboard was bombarded. Ordinary activity ceased. I drove out to do something normal while awaiting a further briefing. And the phone rang and rang in the car just as it had in the office. Total befuddling distraction. They say you should not use the mobile while driving. Take heed. They are right.

I was so distracted that I drove straight into the rear end of a very large lorry, doing huge damage to my then beloved Land Rover, which the motor insurers subsequently wrote off. The Gendarmes were kind. They overlooked my illegal phone activity the moment they became aware of the issue of the moment. There was only one little condition: a number for me to ring with regular updates of any progress.

Progress came fast. Time for bona fides. I was collected and driven to a small house well separated from its neighbors, sparsely furnished, and with a few phones scattered throughout. “The Contact” was invited to sit on one side of the table. Their counterpart sat on the other.

“Now then, can you be sure it’s him, if it is him?” The question was directed to me, by a man who would have passed as nondescript anywhere else, but who had an intimidating intensity about him in the confines of this room.

“Not so fast,” said his opponent from the media. “If we are going to put all this effort into this deal, we need to know that you are not a hoaxer and can deliver the goods. So, tell me the names of the gang that stole Shergar all those years ago”

This was too much for me. I arose and left, saying very loudly that this was something that I definitely did not need to know, hear of, nor have any awareness of. When the meeting broke up after another 20 minutes or so, I had completed my 15th lap of the building so to avoid having any further contact with the negotiations. It was back to the office forthwith to await developments and to again try to revert to a normal day’s work, which was becoming increasingly difficult.

“It will be tonight,” came the follow up call. “Be ready.” And this advice was given with a request that some documents should be couriered to an address in the city. They were. The poor innocent van driver pressed the doorbell to be greeted by a pair of Rottweilers and the intended recipient of the papers had to put down his fearsome looking baseball bat before he could sign for them!

This frenzy of activity had not gone unnoticed by one of the two sisters who had visited Shergar so many years ago. She still had the photo album, which still had the tail hairs, which still had the hair roots with Shergar’s DNA. Proof positive, if it was to be the real thing.

The phone rang at 8:00pm.

“It will be there in two hours,” said the intermediary. I waited, and waited, and waited. Then the Gendarmes arrived with a large and sturdy brown bag marked “EVIDENCE.” The film crew swarmed.

“Wait!” they cried, “we need to get set up properly.” Lights, action, the whole hurdy gurdy of filming. And then, finally, I opened the bag under the glare of the spotlights. A skull alright. With a bullet hole in its forehead. No need for the hair root DNA. It was a bovine skull! My relief was immense. The film crew’s disappointment was of an entirely different order of magnitude.

This was not the first time a Shergar “recovery” had resulted in disappointment. A similar unheralded phone call to the office some years previously had contained the advice that his body had been washed up on Dublin’s docks. I should await escort by the Special Branch to where it had been found, I was told

With flashing blue lights and wailing sirens, we tore through the city, finally braking and swinging to the right to enter the dockside gates. A uniformed officer rose his right arm, not in salute, but to direct us. He did so majestically, clearly preparing himself for the photo opportunity that would result in his portrait adorning the front page of that evening’s newspapers.

“Shergar!” he shouted with great gusto, while pointing in the direction of a very large tarpaulin that covered a very large carcass beside where he stood. Then came lights, cameras, the whole deal, as was to follow all those years later. But with the same result. Shergar was a Thoroughbred, a breed that do not have very large hooves surrounded by copious amounts of very shaggy ankle hair. The officer’s dream of instant stardom was shattered the moment the tarpaulin was drawn back and a very long, black and white hairy limb was exposed. Crestfallen was just too small a word.

From Dr. Des Leadon, March 2020: These stories fulfill a promise I made to my colleague and dear friend Dr. Michelle LeBlanc before her untimely death on April 13, 2013. Michelle and I collaborated on various projects after meeting at a Havermeyer Foundation Lecture on neonatal foals, and she soon became a wonderful friend to both my wife, Mariann, and me. When Michelle was first diagnosed with her terrible disease, I visited her in Florida. After conceding that I would not be able to visit her as often as I would have liked, I promised that I would write to her every two weeks. I honored that promise for the rest of her life. These stories formed the basis of that correspondence.

The final story, titled “Michelle’s Gift,” is among others still to be edited. These stories are a review of many transatlantic clinical equine research collaborations between her, myself, Peter Rossdale, Marion Silver and many others. At the time, I imagined these stories were my gift to Michelle. The reality, though, was that they were much more Michelle’s everlasting gift to me—a rediscovery of the joys of writing and, perhaps, an analogy for so much else in life.

About Dr. Des Leadon

Desmond (Des) Patrick Leadon, FRCVS, has worked in equine practice in Ireland, England, Australia and Spain. He has provided consultation services in Russia, China, Italy, France and many other countries, and he has been involved in equine clinical research for more than 30 years.

Leadon graduated as a veterinarian from Trinity College Dublin in 1975. He returned there and was awarded his Master of Science degree by thesis. He subsequently joined the world-famous equine specialist practice of Rossdale and Partners in Newmarket and was awarded the degree of Fellowship of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, London, by thesis, in 1982. He returned to equine practice in County Meath, Ireland, before joining the then newly established Irish Equine Centre in 1984. The Irish Equine Centre is Ireland’s independent equine diagnostic and research laboratory.

Leadon is Head of Clinical Pathology at the Centre and a member of its Management Committee. He is an external lecturer for the Equine Science course at the University of Limerick and is an Honorary Faculty Member of the Veterinary Sciences School at University College Dublin. He is both a European College and Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons Registered Consultant/Specialist in Equine Medicine.

He served as president of both the British Equine Veterinary Association (1993-1994) and the World Equine Veterinary Association (2001-2006). He continues to serve on the Past Presidents Advisory Committee of the World Equine Veterinary Association (2006 to date). He is a Founding Diplomate and former Vice President of the European College of Equine Internal Medicine (2002 to 2008). He served an initial term as the International Director of the American Association of Equine Practitioners (2009 to 2011) and was invited to serve a second term (2011 to 2012).

He has published 74 reports in equine scientific literature, in text books, and in lay publications, and he has made more than 200 presentations at national and international equine scientific meetings. His special interest areas include the problems inherent in transporting horses long distances by air, the spread of infectious disease, and Rhodococcus equi. He has received research funding grants from organizations that include the International League for the Protection of Horses, The International Equestrian Federation, The Hong Kong Jockey Club, Ireland’s National Development Plan and the Irish Thoroughbred Breeders Association.

Leadon is a pre-race inspector for the International Racing Bureau (for the Hong Kong International Races) and acts as an Advisor and as an Arbiter in insurance disputes for Lloyds Underwriters. He is a Veterinary Advisor to the Irish Thoroughbred Breeders Association (ITBA), Chairman of the Veterinary Advisory Committee of the European Thoroughbred Breeders Association (EFTBA) and Chairman of the Veterinary Advisory Committee of the International Thoroughbred Breeders Federation (ITBF). He was appointed to both the Equine Liaison Group of the Department of Agriculture and the Veterinary Medicines Committee of the Irish Medicines Board in January 2011.

Leadon was presented the “Outstanding Contribution To The Industry Award” by the Irish Thoroughbred Breeders Association in January 2014.

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