There never was and there never could be a story the like of it. Desert Orchid was the trail blazing grey that 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 forty years ago this weekend that he lined up for the two mile Victor Chandler Chase at Ascot set to give away 22lbs to the talented, 13 race winner Panto Prince. He was almost into throttling time.
By then Desert Orchid was ten years old and into the seventh season and fifty first start of an improbable career which had begun by making the running at Kempton only to crash so exhausted at the last that the last rites were readied. Three weeks before that January day at Ascot, he had won the three mile King George VI at Kempton, 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 hotch-potch of connections. For Desert Orchid was destined to live dangerously. The first time Jimmy Burridge sat on “Dessie’s” £175 grand dam, 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 a second in a two horse race. Her daughter Flower Child was so wild out hunting that Jimmy put her into training and waited a long while before she finally beat her sole opponent in a bad heat at Plumpton. When a local worthy was asked how Jimmy should plan a breeding programme, he looked at Flower Child and said “I would shoot that one and start again.”
When Jimmy spent all over £350 to send Flower Child to the one time classic hope Grey Mirage 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 if his mum’s battiness had come through as it did when he capsized in the horse box en route to his first term in training. Whether “Fred” had talent or not would come later but there was something about him that we were all to fall for. Jimmy’s son Richard had 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 which 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 script writer – but he couldn’t have written this one.
What followed from then to the Ascot showdown 40 years ago was even more improbable than what happened afterwards. By complete co-incidence Desert Orchid had been despatched to the same Whitsbury gallops on which Grey Mirage had strutted his stuff. By no better (or worse) means than that Richard had liked the fearless way the trainer tried to make other people’s geese into swans, 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.
For David Elsworth was about to embark on a period of success unmatched in its versatility. By 1989 he had been training for a mere ten years but had already won the Grand National with Rhyme N’Reason, had seen victory at both the Cheltenham Festival and at Royal Ascot where that summer he would follow Desert Orchid’s “season mirabilis” with the Kings Stand Stakes for Indian Ridge and the Queen Mary Stakes for Dead Certain who would follow up with the much coveted two year old fillies’ treble of the Lowther Stakes at York and the Cheveley Park at Newmarket. David could be chaotic, confrontational, and notoriously stubborn but he was also intuitive, witty and wise and had learnt his trade at the grass roots. 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 “Dessie’s” disastrous first outing, he was back in headstrong if not too successful action at Wincanton, was second at Sandown three weeks later before blowing out at Newbury a week after that. Not 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 this six victory “Novice” season. He rose so fast that he ended by starting 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 that 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 already burnt out.
Except that he most obviously hadn’t. He had been miles clear when he turned over at Ascot and was all of twenty five lengths ahead when he did the same thing at Kempton’s second last on his return. This meant that he had failed to finish in each of his last four races over hurdles and yet was now set to go chasing. Good job jockey Colin Brown was as sound as his horse appeared reckless. Four others lined up against him at Exeter. Once the tapes went up all they saw was “Dessie’s” tail and the pattern was repeated. It would have been five races in a row if he hadn’t sent Colin skywards by galloping into a fence at Ascot. True the season tailed off slightly with only third place in the Arkle at Cheltenham and later defeats at both Sandown and Ascot, but Desert Orchid was now a horse we knew. Crikey, he had already run 30 times. Sprinter Sacre, for all his amazingness, has only raced on 17 occasions. But then “Sprinter” was always being hailed as a superstar and has only been beaten three times in all. By the end of his third season “Dessie’s” 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 if one of his novice chase victories had been over two and a half miles, that tearaway style would surely be better over the minimum trip. Then, after blazing clear over two miles at Ascot in December 1988, Elsworth blithely stated that he would be going for the King George on Boxing Day and stap me if “Dessie” didn’t do exactly the same thing over the extra mile. This was unprecedented. The “Grey Flier” was box office and the interest only increased when, after a couple more three mile victories, he could only finish third over two miles in the Champion Chase at Cheltenham. Dessie might have been a horse of 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 elude him.
Desert Orchid had become a story, better than that he had become a personality. We knew what he was like. We understood his no nonsense, “let’s get ready to rumble” approach. We began to recognize his issues and, even better, we started to appreciate his heart. He didn’t just win, he battled in defeat. Going to the races you knew the horse was going to run his lungs out for you. Sometimes, as when he and other frontrunners 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 that “Dessie” was there for you and when it came right it was very heaven. That’s what had 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 before and after he won that Whitbread was as warm an experience as the game can give. For by now we were all aware of him and of his. Of Richard Burridge, the tall and friendly former Cambridge Hurdling Blue who secretly jumped the steeplechase fences for devilment. Of Richard’s assorted friends and relations who had separate bits of the legs and tail. Of Simon Sherwood, the gifted but ultra-professional public schoolboy who had taken over when Colin Brown retired after Cheltenham. For “small only in stature” Janice Coyle who looked after Dessie at home and led him up at the races. Of unlucky omen at the track Rodney Boult who was the only rider who could control him on the gallops. And most of all, David 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 at Sandown. Here was the most recognizable 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 horses, most particularly Arkle in the 60s over three miles or Sprinter Sacre in the present over two, have been far more superior to their rivals than Dessie ever was to his, but no animal has ever matched him for consistent competitiveness over any distance or going. And no horse has ever better symbolized the raw life enhancing thrill that lies at the heart of galloping at four foot of birch at thirty miles an hour. What’s more this now nearly white showman would both dazzle us with his jumping and then dig deep for victory.
This last was what won him a popularity no horse has subsequently equalled. Desert Orchid was not just grey (becoming nearly white), and bold and beautiful, he was brave. Coming to the 24th and last fence at Sandown Jimmy Frost thought he and Kildimo “would win five minutes”, but on the flat Desert Orchid stuck his ears back, his neck out and as he drew a length clear at the line Channel 4 commentator Graham Goode 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 one the most sought after and inspiring is the will to win. Desert Orchid was the epitome of it.
Even if in Dessie’s case, the exact phrase was “refusal to lose” and it was that instinct that was became most crucial in the two defining points of that greatest season forty years ago. For 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 his three races so far but at Ascot everyone, especially the bookmakers, knew it would be different. Desert Orchid was not just set to give 22 lbs to Panto Prince, but 19lbs to the brilliant if cranky Vodkatini and 26 to Long Engagement who had actually 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.
The betting did not have the half of it for 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 a storm lashed 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 at Ascot as the grey horse flattened his ears back 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 its volume as Panto Prince was literally eyeballed out of the verdict at the line.
It was one of the most astonishing things you will ever see on a racecourse but that season Dessie also did something similar to pull the Gainsborough Chase out of the fire at Sandown then reached right to his very depths to finally overcome his Cheltenham hoodoo in the most atrocious of conditions at Cheltenham.
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 ran and got beaten in two more Tingle Creeks, two more Gold Cups, but won the Irish Grand National giving two stone away to thirteen opponents and ran three more times in the King George VI Chase at Kempton. 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 thirteen 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 that took the game from the front.