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Dessie: the dashing grey who captured the hearts of the nation in a golden era

Brough Scott reflects on the career of Desert Orchid, the trail-blazing star

Desert Orchid: the most recognisable and popular horse in training during his racing days
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Published in the Racing Post on January 12, 2014

There never was and there never could be a story like it. Desert Orchid was the trail-blazing grey who attacked life from the front. Come hell or high water, year after year, he entranced us by taking his races by the throat. It was exactly 25 years ago this weekend that he lined up for the two-mile Victor Chandler Chase at Ascot set to give away 22lb to the talented, 13-race winner Panto Prince. He was almost into throttling time.

By then Desert Orchid was ten and into the seventh season and 52nd start of an improbable career that he had begun with him making the running at Kempton only to crash so exhausted at the final flight that the last rites were readied. Three weeks before the Victor Chandler, he had won the three-mile King George VI Chase at Kempton, and three weeks before that he had led all the way in the two-mile Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown. What's more, he had closed out his previous season by doing the same trick on the same track but over three miles five furlongs in the Whitbread Gold Cup.

Yet by then he had also twice fallen and twice been pulled up over hurdles, had once been fitted with blinkers, had unseated his jockey over fences and had tried four unsuccessful shots at the Cheltenham Festival. Yes, Desert Orchid had earned his laurels the hard way.

Racing fans, and the hundreds of thousands he made into fans, could not just identify him, they could identify with him and with his glorious hotchpotch of connections in a story that started in unpromising circumstances.

The first time Jimmy Burridge sat on Dessie's £175 granddam, Grey Orchid, she reared over backwards and dumped him in the muck heap. While he risked his solicitor's neck riding Grey Orchid in point-to-points, the closest they got to victory was second place in a two-horse race. Her daughter Flower Child was so wild out hunting that Burridge put her into training and waited a long while before she finally beat her sole opponent in a bad race at Plumpton. When a local worthy was asked how Burridge should plan a breeding programme, he looked at Flower Child and said: "I would shoot that one and start again."

Burridge spent £350 to send Flower Child to the one-time Classic hope Grey Mirage and the resultant offspring looked so odd that he was nicknamed Fred to make him feel ordinary. When Fred escaped from his field and galloped between lorries towards Market Harborough it looked as if his mum's battiness had come through, as it did when he capsized in protest en route to his first term in training.

But there was something about this grey that we would all fall for later.

Desert Orchid and Simon Sherwood clear the last en route to Gold Cup victory from Yahoo

Burridge's son Richard succumbed as early as April 1982. He saw Fred, soon to be Desert Orchid, galloping round the field and promptly paid Jimmy £ 2,000 for a half-share he could not afford. Richard's occupation was one of the endless quirks of the story that echo back down the years. He was a scriptwriter who later wrote the best book ever about owning a racehorse.

What followed from then to the Ascot showdown 25 years ago was even more improbable than what happened afterwards. By complete coincidence Desert Orchid had been dispatched to the same Whitsbury gallops on which Grey Mirage had strutted his stuff. David Elsworth had been selected for the unlikely honour of turning Fred into Dessie the superstar. As it happened it was a match made in heaven.

The master of Whitsbury was about to embark on a period of success unmatched in its versatility. By 1989 Elsworth had been training for a mere ten years but had already won the Grand National with Rhyme 'n' Reason and enjoyed victory at both the Cheltenham Festival and at Royal Ascot, where in the summer of 1989 he would follow Desert Orchid's miracle season with the King's Stand Stakes for Indian Ridge and the Queen Mary Stakes for Dead Certain, who would go on to complete the two-year-old fillies' treble with the Lowther Stakes at York and the Cheveley Park at Newmarket.

Elsworth could be chaotic, confrontational and notoriously stubborn, but he was also intuitive, witty and wise and had learned his trade at the grassroots. No-one doubted that he had green fingers with horses.

Looking back, the audacity of the trainer perfectly matched the robustness and resilience of the gradually whitening horse in his care. Not for Elsworth the tremulous "back to the drawing board" and long, furrowed-brow weeks of rethinking after disappointments or defeat. A month after that disastrous first outing, Dessie was back in headstrong if not too successful action at Wincanton and finished second at Sandown two weeks later before blowing out at Newbury another fortnight after that.

It was far from the start normally associated with today's titans but come the next season Desert Orchid jumped to the front at Ascot's very first flight and from then on few saw which way he went throughout a six-victory novice season. He rose so fast he ended up as second favourite, although finally well beaten, in Dawn Run's Champion Hurdle.

He was making an impact because you could not miss him. He was "that grey horse of Elsworth's who tears off in front and keeps going".

He had done it on TV at Kempton on Boxing Day, in the Tolworth Hurdle at Sandown and in the Kingwell at Wincanton. He was admired but not yet wondered at. When the next term yielded just one success from eight runs and ended with him being pulled up in both the English and Welsh Champion Hurdles before falling at Ascot, you might have been excused for dismissing him as a one-season rocket that had burned itself out.

Except that he most obviously hadn't.

He had been miles clear when he turned over at Ascot and was all of 25 lengths ahead when he did the same thing at Kempton's second-last on his return. That meant he had failed to finish in each of his last four races over hurdles, yet he was set to go chasing. Little did we know what lay ahead.

Four others lined up against him on his chase debut at Exeter. Once the tapes went up all they saw was his tail and the pattern was repeated again and again. It would have been five races in a row that season if Dessie hadn't sent Colin Brown skywards by galloping into a fence at Ascot. The season tailed off slightly with only third place in the Arkle at Cheltenham and later defeats at Sandown and Ascot but Desert Orchid was now a horse we knew.

Crikey, he had already run 30 times.

Desert Orchid: box office chaser had huge talent but his style would always be dangerous

Sprinter Sacre, for all his amazing feats, has raced on only 17 occasions. Whereas Sprinter Sacre was always hailed as a superstar, Dessie had made a much less heralded journey but at least he had become a horse we had a view about. For a long time that view was as something of speed rather than of stamina. Even though one of his novice-chase victories had been over two and a half miles, his tearaway style would surely be better suited to the minimum trip. Then, after he had blazed clear over two miles at Ascot in December 1986, Elsworth blithely stated he would go for the King George on Boxing Day and, lo and behold, Dessie did exactly the same thing over the extra mile.

This was unprecedented. The 'Grey Flyer' was box office and the interest only increased when, after a couple more three-mile victories, he was third over two miles in the Champion Chase at Cheltenham. He had massive talent but his style would always be dangerous and he already seemed hugely less effective galloping left-handed, as at Cheltenham. Success where the great ones are measured might always prove beyond him.

Desert Orchid had become a story; better than that he had become a personality. We understood his no-nonsense, 'let's get ready to rumble' approach. We began to recognise his issues and, best of all, we started to appreciate his heart. He didn't just win, he battled in defeat.

Going to the races you knew this was a horse who would run his lungs out for you. Sometimes, as when he and other front-runners went off too fast in the King George or when there was another struggling second in the Champion Chase at Cheltenham, that effort was unavailing. But you knew Dessie was there for you and when it came right it was heaven. That's what happened when he won the Whitbread at Sandown.

It was my single most enjoyable day as a racing presenter. At its best, broadcasting is about shared experience and being close to Desert Orchid for that Whitbread was as warm an experience as the game can give. By now we were all aware of him and of his connections.

Desert Orchid – 'There was always an element of drama'

Breeding gr g Grey Mirage-Flower Child

First race January 21, 1983

Last race December 26, 1991

What made him great Remarkable versatility in terms of distance and ground conditions, breathtaking jumping, tremendous will to win and the ability to give away lumps of weight to talented rivals

Big-race wins Cheltenham Gold Cup, King George VI Chase (four times), Irish Grand National, Whitbread Gold Cup, Tingle Creek Chase, Victor Chandler Chase, Martell Cup, Racing Post Chase

"He somehow managed to be the underdog, usually because he was giving weight away"

One thing you didn't know In 1990 the Daily Mail ran a poll on whether he should run in the Grand National – there were 9,000 votes against and 48 for

What they said "There was always an element of drama about his races. He somehow managed to be the underdog, usually because he was giving weight away, or running over what people considered an inadequate or excessive distance. What shone was his vitality, appetite for life and toughness" – Richard Burridge

There was Richard Burridge, the tall and friendly former Cambridge Blue who secretly jumped the steeplechase fences for devilment, and his assorted friends and relations who had separate bits of the legs and tail. Firmly in the saddle by now was Simon Sherwood, the gifted and ultra-professional public schoolboy who had taken over when Brown retired at Cheltenham. There was Janice Coyle, small only in stature, who looked after Dessie at home and led him up at the races, and there was Rodney Boult, an unlucky omen at the track but the only rider able to control him on the gallops. And, most of all, there was Elsworth, whose untutored eloquence could again and again answer the banal "how does it feel?" question with words that no scholar could match.

No amount of marketing millions could match what Desert Orchid did that day. Here was the most recognisable and popular horse in training setting off in front for this last big race of the jumping season and defying his opponents to pass him. Other great chasers have been far more superior to their rivals than Dessie ever was to his, but none has matched him for consistent competitiveness over any distance or going.

Desert Orchid: won the King George VI Chase at Kempton four times during his fine career

And the raw, life-enhancing thrill that lies at the heart of galloping at four foot of birch at 30 miles an hour has never been better symbolised than by this showman who would dazzle us with his jumping and then was ready to dig deep for victory.

This last virtue was what won him a popularity no horse has subsequently passed. Desert Orchid was not just grey (becoming nearly white) and bold and beautiful, he was brave. Coming to the 24th and last fence that day at Sandown, Jimmy Frost thought he and Kildimo "would win five minutes" but on the flat Desert Orchid stuck his ears back, neck out, and as he drew a length clear at the line the commentator said: "I have never, ever heard a crowd warm to a horse like they have warmed to Desert Orchid." Of all the qualities in sport the most sought after and inspiring of all is the will to win. Desert Orchid was the epitome of it.

Perhaps more accurately, in Dessie's case, the exact phrase was 'refusal to lose' and it was that instinct that became most crucial in the two defining points of that greatest season 25 years ago.

At his core Desert Orchid was not a Fancy Dan but a fighter. He would throw you out of his box, take a bite out of your arm. In particular, he would not let another horse pass him on the gallops. Come January 1989 no horse had got near him in three races that season but at Ascot everyone, especially the bookmakers, knew it would be different.

Desert Orchid was not just set to give 22lb to Panto Prince but 23lb to the brilliant if cranky Vodkatini and 26lb to Long Engagement, who had beaten Dessie at the same weights in the 1987 Tingle Creek. Desert Orchid was 6-4 favourite but there was plenty of money for Vodkatini at 7-4, Panto Prince at 3-1 and Long Engagement at what seemed a generous 12-1.

Panto Prince declared war from the start. He led over the first two fences, had to cede the front to Dessie for the next three but then forced ahead again. Vodkatini could not stand the pace and capsized at the fifth but on the last turn Long Engagement got into the argument and there were three horses abreast going to the second-last. At the final fence it was just a duel but Panto Prince seemed the stronger and went more than a length clear on the run-in. The crowd roared but there was a yearning disappointment in it.

The world remembers Dessie's battling Gold Cup victory at stormlashed Cheltenham two months later as such an epic that it was voted 'greatest' of all 'great races'. Yet what happened as he lugged towards and past Yahoo that dreadful but uplifting day was but a magnified repeat of the same emotions at Ascot. Both races had the voice of Peter O'Sullevan.

"Desert Orchid is fighting back," he called as the grey horse flattened back his ears and stretched his body over at Panto Prince in that show of naked aggression he used on the gallops. "Dessie's fighting back like a tiger." The crowd's roar suddenly doubled in volume as Panto Prince was eyeballed out of the verdict at the line.

It was one of the most astonishing things you will ever see on a racecourse but Dessie did something similar to pull the Gainsborough Chase out of the fire at Sandown and then reached right to his very depths to finally overcome his Cheltenham hoodoo in the most atrocious conditions in the Gold Cup.

We thought he could astonish us no more but this greatest of all the greys was far from finished yet. By now he made headlines whatever he did – win, lose or fall, which he did with typical eccentricity in the very next race after the Gold Cup. He continued on for two and a half seasons. He was beaten in two more Tingle Creeks and two more Gold Cups, but won the Irish Grand National giving away two stone to 13 opponents and ran three more times in the King George VI Chase. He won the first two and fell in the third when fighting a final losing battle. The warrior had gone out on his shield.

He lived another 15 years in much-lauded retirement where the magic of seeing him never seemed to fade. All of sport, all of life, loves to search for a symbol. We have never found anything better than the grey horse who always took the game from the front.

Simon Sherwood: 'He knew he was good'

We were trying to teach the horse to stay three miles and then Elsie [David Elsworth] would yank him back to two miles if there was an opportunity with good prize-money.

It was difficult for me in the saddle and winning the Victor Chandler was probably the most uncomfortable ride I ever had on Desert Orchid.

The Ascot race was the first time I had to pull the stick out to him and it was not easy for him but he pulled out what turned out to be enough to get back up and beat Panto Prince, who was getting 22lb.

In my eyes the Cheltenham Gold Cup would have been a penalty kick for us going right-handed but it was a different kettle of fish racing left-handed. He was a two stone lesser horse going that way, in my opinion.

Dessie with trainer David Elsworth after the 1986 King George

It turned out to be a bog at Cheltenham and we even discussed not running Desert Orchid. Once the decision to run was taken, the plan was to pop out and let him do his own thing.

It became a race of attrition in the bottomless ground and a number of the opposition dropped by the wayside in one way or another, but while he was hating the conditions he was still in there fighting.

It was sheer guts and the ability to stay on his feet that won him the day and coming back into the winner's enclosure he was taking in every little thing with those big ears pricked. He loved it and knew he was good.

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Yellow Sam: a perfectly executed gamble that netted Barney Curley a fortune

The afternoon Sir Henry Cecil moved out of the darkness and into the light

Vodkatini: infuriating yet talented character who chose when he wanted to race

Jimmy Winkfield: the American jockey who escaped the Bolsheviks and Nazis

Monet's Garden: 'As we got to know him he never let you down, even if he got beat'

David Ashforth on the life of racing's most infamous journalist Jeffrey Bernard

Fearless Freddie Williams: the legendary layer who took on the biggest punters

Harry Findlay: it was, and always will be, the easiest £33,000 I've ever won

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We thought he could astonish us no more but this greatest of all the greys was far from finished yet. By now he made headlines whatever he did

Key data

Desert Orchid
E.W. Terms