12/11/2007 1:00AM

Italian job has happier ending

EmailTUCSON, Ariz. - It will be 25 years, come February, that the Thoroughbred world was jolted by the kidnapping of Great Britain's "wonder horse," the 1981 English Derby winner and European Horse of the Year, Shergar.

Two masked and armed men broke into the home of James Fitzgerald, head groom at the Aga Khan's Ballymany stud in Newbridge, County Kildare, Ireland, and - joined by four others - locked Fitzgerald's family in a downstairs room and forced Fitzgerald at gunpoint to release Shergar from his security barn.

They then loaded the British equine hero on a trailer and drove off, taking Fitzgerald along with the stallion, who had been retired from racing in September of 1982 and was booked to be bred to 55 mares in the 1983 season, his second at stud. Four hours and 40 miles later, they released Fitzgerald, telling him they would telephone a ransom demand by noon later that day.

They did, asking for 2 million pounds, roughly $4 million. They reportedly phoned again later in the day, reducing the ransom to 40,000 pounds, or some $80,000. Then a $5 million ransom was reported. Shareholders in the horse, including the Aga Khan, refused to pay any of the ransom demands, not wanting to encourage more kidnappings.

The horse, however, was insured by Lloyds of London, for some $24 million.

Shergar, easily identifiable by horsemen and by the public because of frequent photos of his distinctive blazed face, never was found, dead or alive. In the absence of proof of death, Lloyds refused to pay.

Credible or not, a former member of the Irish Republican Army, named Sean O'Callaghan, claimed in a book he wrote, called "The Informer," that Shergar had been killed shortly after he was kidnapped, according to O'Callaghan because the kidnappers could not control the unruly stud.

Now, 25 years later, it all has happened again.

The setting this time is Italy, with the victim being that country's best trotter, Equinox Bi, owned by one of Italy's leading stables, Scuderia Gina Biasuzzi. A 6-year-old with earnings of $1.3 million, he had a strong American pedigree, top and bottom, his sire being a full brother to the brilliant stallion Valley Victory and his dam, Personal Banner, being a standout race mare who was owned by George Steinbrenner before the Biasuzzis bought her.

Early in August, Equinox Bi was flown to New Jersey for the $300,000 Nat Ray at the Meadowlands. Unfamiliar to U.S. bettors, he was sent off at 45-1, and just missed winning the fastest-raced mile in the world to that date, finishing a close second to this country's best older trotter, Corleone Kosmos.

Equinox Bi then shipped to Canada to prepare for the $726,000 Breeders Crown classic at Woodbine Entertainment's Mohawk Raceway on Sept. 1, winning it on a disqualification. Two weeks later, on Sept. 15, he defeated a field of 10 of the world's best trotters, including horses from Sweden, France, Canada, and the United States, in the $672,695 Maple Leaf trot at Mohawk.

He then returned to Italy, taking fertility tests in mid-October in preparation for a stud career in the States, starting in February. The Biasuzzi family planned to stand him at Blue Chip Farm, a gorgeous facility in Wallkill, N.Y., and one of the country's leading Standardbred breeding operations.

On Friday night, Nov. 2, sometime between 1:30 a.m., when a night watchman made his last inspection of the Biasuzzi stable, and 5 a.m., when grooms came on duty, Equinox Bi was kidnapped from his stall. Two inspection trips scheduled to be made by security personnel between 1:30 and 5 a.m. never were made.

The kidnappers picked a locked secondary gate, drove in with a small van - its tire tracks visible - and stole the million-dollar winner.

Trotting is popular in Italy, the Biasuzzis are probably the sport's best known owners there, and the horse was a national racing hero, particularly after his victories in North America.

In the aftermath of the kidnapping, the Biasuzzis, disenchanted and disheartened, sold 35 of their best horses on Monday of this week in the Hippodrome in Bologna.

Tuesday morning, to give a happy holiday ending to the story, Equinox Bi was found, healthy and apparently unharmed.

There have been other kidnappings of top horses with happy endings. A year after the Shergar incident in Ireland, the French stallion Hadol du Vivier, considered Europe's best trotter during his racing career, was stolen in Normandy and his kidnappers demanded a $250 million ransom. The horse was found, unharmed, just a few miles from his home farm, less than 24 hours later.

We're happy this latest crime in Italy did not wind up a replay of Shergar.