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FeaturePeople's Champion

Desert Orchid: so much more than just an astonishing racehorse - he became part of the family too

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Peter ThomasRacing Writer of the Year
Desert Orchid is through to the final

To mark National Racehorse Week, this week we're profiling your five finalists in the race to be crowned The People's Champion. In the second instalment, Peter Thomas – with the help of Racing Post readers – considers what made Desert Orchid so special. You can now vote for your champion here.

Looking at your nominations for the People's Champion, what's very apparent even at first glance is that those of you who plumped for Desert Orchid viewed him not just as an astonishing racehorse but as a part of your lives, a hero, a role model, an inspiration and even a close friend for nine unforgettable years.

For many of you, he was a holiday destination, a part of the family, and for some the glue that bonded you to like-minded souls. Being a Gold Cup-winning horse is admirable, you seem to be saying, but there's a lot more to being your champion than just that.

It's why jumps horses have dominated the vote. Yes, Frankel was an athlete par excellence, but we didn't know him long enough to take him to our hearts in quite the same way. Yes, he retired unbeaten, but Dessie lost 36 times in 70 races because he was campaigned to, and beyond, his outermost limits, and when he was beaten it often added to his lustre rather than dulling his appeal.

All that is what separates a people's champion from 'the best racehorse the world has ever seen', as Nicky Hudson plainly understood in writing, quite simply: "He made me fall in love with racing and form a more-than-lifelong bond with my grandad."

Countless racing fans will concur with the sentiment. Dessie's style and panache were what lured us into the sport, and then, like Nicky, we found ourselves part of a family of his admirers, drawn together by his charisma, his prolific career and his longevity. Grandads, our Saturday afternoon companions on the sofa in front of the TV, were often a big part of it!

Desert Orchid (nearside) and Panto Prince go head-to-head at Ascot
Desert Orchid: four-time winner of the King George VI Chase between 1986 and 1990Credit: Mark Cranham

Of course, you can't be a people's champion unless you're very, very good, as Heather Hollingworth pointed out, describing Dessie as "a dashing grey who loved to produce incredible leaps – fabulous over any distance from two miles to three miles and five furlongs, running in handicaps with ridiculous weights", but it came as no surprise that the majority of people who rated him their favourite did so for other reasons than raw ability.

John Graham Ream was taking the punter's side when he wrote, "I won on him more often than any other horse before or since", and John Paul Evans covered all bases with his simple "awesome on every scale", but among those who were rather more specific, toughness, bravery, heart and tenacity were to the fore.

Tom Rowan recalls how his "first real memory of horse racing was that beautiful grey, and how he stood out from the crowd", but there was nothing even vaguely superficial about this handsome beast. Dawn Beetlestone singled out his "bottomless courage and never-say-die attitude"; Tony Harding loved the way he "just put his head down and ran his heart out every race"; and Sue Marriott summed up the whole package as "beautiful, brave, flamboyant and relentless".

Desert Orchid Fans' Favourite: 'People thought it was an act of lunacy to run over three miles'  

There were races, of course, that united his fans in awe and devotion. He entered the realms of folklore when he won the 1989 Cheltenham Gold Cup (trust the great showman to beat his biggest hoodoo not on a glorious spring afternoon under a clear blue sky, but in bottomless mud and driving snow, with the bookmakers fielding against him). Many voters remain transfixed by the day two months earlier when he chinned poor old Panto Prince on the line at Ascot, but it was the King George wins that endeared him to so many of you.

There were four of them; enough Boxing Days for the beloved horse to become a fixture in so many households. As Barrie Neaves recalls, no doubt with a turkey sandwich in his hand, "he was as much a part of Christmas as Morecambe and Wise in the 1980s".

It's a time-sensitive reference, and one that would surely have faded from our memories if this were any other horse, but Dessie's legend lingers on in the memory and still entices those who were mere twinkles in their father's eye when the flying grey was in his pomp. His image still appears whenever racing excellence is invoked, to remind us that while form and fame are transitory, greatness and legend endure.

All of which magisterial brilliance was multiplied by the trainer. In the hands of many others, Dessie would have been 'rationed', sent into bat when the pitch was flat and the sky was clear, but David Elsworth was a maverick, a sportsman who believed in getting stuck in, whatever the weather, the track, the ground or the opposition, which was why, as Simon Wilkinson points out, his equine hero was "not wrapped in cotton wool – brilliantly trained and prepared to run giving weight away on a regular basis".

To be honest, there are so many reasons why Desert Orchid is still loved and revered, and Racing Post readers, be they armchair punters or racecourse veterans, picked up on all of them.

As you can read below, Chris Hall even wants Dessie to accompany him into the next world, which may be asking a bit much – even of Dessie.

Stephen Rogers, meanwhile, brings an entire army of fans into the picture as he sums up the great horse's universal appeal in a nutshell: "Gave so much enjoyment to so many people."

The mark of a true champion.

'Take me back to those great days'

Desert Orchid was quite simply, unforgettable. He was my sporting childhood. Strutting around the parade ring like a film star. So exhilarating to watch, those spectacular leaps and that unflinching courage.

I remember one day at Ascot, a midweek card in 1987. I was on my Easter school holidays and settled down to watch my hero. The Peregrine Handicap Chase, not one of Dessie's most famous victories, but what I saw that day typified this wonderful horse's character. Conceding 36lb to Gold Bearer, in foul, windy conditions and soft ground (ring any bells?), Dessie looked beaten with two fences to jump. But this wonderful horse always thrived in adversity, battling back to claim another memorable victory.

Desert Orchid enjoys the splendour of Richard Burridge's North Yorkshire home after his incredible season
Desert Orchid: "This wonderful horse always thrived in adversity"Credit: Alec Russell

There were so many more famous winter afternoons during his glittering career, including two years later, when the flying grey displayed exactly the same iron will to win to claim our sport's biggest prize. Watching that race without getting a lump in my throat is still proving difficult after all these years.

At my funeral, hopefully not just yet, a musical playlist won't be necessary. Just a soundtrack compilation to Dessie's greatest moments will do just fine. Brilliantly narrated by Sir Peter O'Sullevan. If I was lucky enough to have my own personal time machine, take me back to those days and press repeat. Great times.
Chris Hall, Racing Post reader

Desert Orchid: the facts and figures

Foaled 1979 in Britain, grey gelding by Grey Mirage - Flower Child (Brother)

Owner Richard Burridge

Trainer David Elsworth, Whitsbury, Hampshire

Jockeys Colin Brown, Simon Sherwood, Richard Dunwoody

Record over fences 27 wins from 50 starts (1985-91)

Cheltenham Gold Cup 1989

King George VI Chase Four times: 1986, 1988, 1989, 1990

Other big-race wins 1988 Chivas Regal Cup (Aintree), Whitbread Gold Cup, Tingle Creek Chase, 1990 Racing Post Chase, Irish Grand National

Champion (top-rated) steeplechaser Five times: 1986-87 to 1990-91

Best Racing Post Rating 189 in 1990 Racing Post Chase

Compiled by John Randall

Read more: 

Denman: They called him The Tank for good reason - and he pushed the boundaries of what we thought possible 

Kauto Star beats Sea The Stars to take last spot in People's Champion final 

Red Rum sees off Tiger Roll in battle of Aintree legends with just one final place left to fill 

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Published on 11 September 2023Last updated 16:07, 14 September 2023