I was born exactly one week after Arkle strode 20 lengths clear of Mill House to record the second of his three victories in the Cheltenham Gold Cup in March, 1965, so it’s fair to say that the legendary steeplechaser was just a little before my time. However, I vividly remember peering through the gathering gloom, as a lithe 18-year-old, at Ascot in November, 1983 to see a maiden hurdler by the name of Desert Orchid win his first race. Impressive though he was in slamming my selection, Lucky Rascal, by 20 lengths on that occasion, little did I realise that I was witnessing the birth of a legend.
Having seen “Dessie” – as he affectionately became known to his thousands of followers inside and outside racing – win ‘in the flesh’, he quickly became a favourite of mine, not least because he won five more times during the 1983/84 National Hunt season. He was thought good enough to contest the Champion Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival in 1984, finishing unplaced behind Dawn Run, but won just once more over hurdles before being switched to fences at the start of the 1985/86 season.
By the time he lined up for the King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day, 1986, he had already established himself as a talented second-season steeplechaser but, with doubts about his stamina over three miles and passed over by regular partner Colin Brown in favour of stable companion, and favourite, Combs Ditch, he was sent off a largely unconsidered 16/1 chance. However, jumping boldly out of the hands of replacement jockey, Simon Sherwood, Desert Orchid led the field a merry dance, eventually passing the line 15 lengths ahead of his nearest pursuer, Door Latch.
The performance that catapulted the iconic grey into the public eye but, with his grey coat becoming increasingly white with age, he was to win plenty more races before his retirement in 1991 to guarantee his place in racing history.
Notwithstanding his Grade 1 wins over 2 miles, in the Tingle Creek Chase at Ascot in 1988 and the Victor Chandler Chase at Sandown in 1989, he was to win the King George VI Chase three more times, in 1988, 1989 and 1990, plus the Whitbread Gold Cup, over 3 miles 5½ furlongs, at Sandown in 1988 and the Irish Grand National, over 3 miles 5 furlongs, at Fairyhouse in 1990.
However, perhaps his finest hour came on March 16, 1989, when on a cold, wintry day he summoned every last ounce of his resolve to overcome his dislike of racing left-handed and heavy going to win the Blue Riband of National Hunt racing, the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Desert Orchid jumped well in the lead until the fifth fence from home and, although left in the lead again by the fall of Ten Plus at the third last, was soon headed by confirmed mudlark Yahoo. The race seemed lost, but the 10-year-old found extra on the run-in, quickening to beat his younger rival by 1½ lengths, much to the delight of the 60,000 crowd.
All in all, Desert Orchid won 34 of his 70 races, amassing over £650,000 and, having survived an operation for a severe attack of colic in 1992, went on to enjoy a happy retirement, during which he became something of a national celebrity. He died quietly in his stable on November 13, 2006 at the age of 27 and was laid to rest close to the statue erected in his honour at Kempton.
Having followed his career pretty much from start to finish, I’ll always remember Desert Orchid much as Simon Sherwood did, ‘brave, tough, intelligent and totally honest’. He was certainly a legend in my lifetime but, more importantly, a legend in his own.