Few horses have their own fan club, but Desert Orchid, known affectionately as “Dessie”, was lucky enough to have one with thousands of members. At the height of the grey gelding’s popularity, a Christmas card arrived in his trainer’s yard from Australia addressed simply as “Desert Orchid, Somewhere in England”.
Desert Orchid’s beginnings did not suggest the gelding would be so popular. In his first race, a novice hurdle race at Kempton in 1983, Desert Orchid fell at the first fence. When he took a long time to get to his feet, it looked like his career would be over.
His career wasn’t over, but it was still unimpressive. He won only eight starts in 1984-85. That same year, he was pulled up in two starts and fell in his final outing. The following season, Desert Orchid did not qualify for hurdles and had to move up to the bigger obstacles in steeplechases.
Moving to bigger obstacles proved to be the key to the success of Desert Orchid. On Boxing Day in 1986, he won the King George VI Chase at Kempton by fifteen lengths. It was just the beginning for the horse that would become legendary.
Desert Orchid had the best season of his career in 1988. He won the South West Pattern Chase, the Tingle Creek Chase, his second King George VI Chase, the Victor Chandler, and the Gainsborough Chase for trainer David Elsworth.
However, the biggest race of Desert Orchid’s career was the 1989 Cheltenham Gold Cup, voted race of the century by readers of the Racing Post. Rain and snow had fallen heavily leading up to the Cup, making the going heavy. Not only did Desert Orchard dislike the heavy going, he preferred right-handed courses.
A crowd of more than 58,000 watched Desert Orchid huge effort to overtake the mud-loving Yahoo up the long hill to the finish. Desert Orchid won by a length and a half.
After his victory, Dessie’s jockey, Simon Sherwood said, “I’ve never known a horse so brave. He hated every step of the way in the ground and dug as deep as he could possibly go.”
Owned by Richard and Midge Burridge, Desert Orchid was retired in 1991 after taking a bad spill three fences from home in an attempt to take his fifth King George VI Chase. The gelding won thirty-four of his seventy starts and earned over six hundred thousand pounds.
A year after his retirement, Desert Orchid survived a life-threatening operation for colic.
Although his retirement was filled with public appearances, Desert Orchid took summer vacation with the Burridge family and returned in the winter to David Elsworth’s yard to lead out the two-year-olds. He returned to Kempton every year to lead the post parade of the King George VI Chase, a race he won a historic four times.
Desert Orchid was a loved sports hero in England and did many things outside his career as a race horse. He trotted on to the set of the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year Show. He was ridden by Princess Anne in a 1992 charity race. He helped raise money for good causes. He even supplied some inspiration to the government.
When the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Norman Lamont rose to address the House of Commons in a Budget speech, he said, “Desert Orchid and I have a lot in common. We are both greys; vast sums of money are riding on our performance, the Opposition hopes we shall fall at the first fence and we are both carrying too much weight.”
Dessie enjoyed a happy retirement in before dying on November 13, 2006 at the age of 27, leaving behind fond memories in the minds of his thousands of adoring fans.
Desert Orchid’s Website