FAREWELL TO DESERT ORCHID
He was the warrior we took to our hearts. Desert Orchid was not just good but brave, not just brave but front-running bold, not just bold but fearless and sometimes flawed. He was the grey attacker who put his neck on the line. And the whole world loved him for it.
It was utterly typical of him that he should go out on his shield. That he began and ended his seventy-race, 34-victory, ten-season career with a sickening somersault at Kempton. That the final crash came in his sixth consecutive King George VI Chase, and when he got up and galloped riderless past the stands the whole crowd stood and cheered him just as they had roared home his record four victories in the race.
With Desert Orchid you knew exactly what you were going to get. The tapes would go up and he would charge off to the first as if Prince Rupert had recruited him to the cavalry. In an increasingly evasive and spin-doctoring world there was something wonderfully rewarding in this increasingly white horse who set caution to the winds, and unlike Prince Rupert’s one-charge wonders kept returning to the fray.
Our relationship with him was all the stronger for its taking time to grow. Sure he won six in a row and ended up running in the Champion Hurdle in his first full season. Trainer David Elsworth seemed game to run him in everything, as did the splendidly batty Burridge family. Solicitor Jimmy Burridge had bred Dessie from his headstrong hunter mare Flower Child, while his son Richard was a tall, fit-looking chap who had won a hurdling blue at Cambridge and was a film scriptwriter in real life. They were not quite the Distressed Gentlefolks’ Association, but they had to borrow a horsebox to take Dessie to Elsworth’s, and it took them two days and much kicking to get him there. They had never expected anything and were having the time of their lives: Richard used to sneak off and jump the fences himself. But after four seasons we thought they had a good horse but not a great one, a character but not a king.
Time for comparisons. As the nine-year-old Best Mate aims to emulate the wonderful third Cheltenham Gold Cup which Arkle achieved at the same age, he brings to the party a record of twelve wins and six seconds from eighteen starts. At this stage Desert Orchid had won eighteen races from 44 starts, had won and been beaten in the King George, had earlier been good enough to run in two Champion Hurdles, had also fallen in three other hurdle races, had been pulled up twice, and had once been ignominiously and unsuccessfully tried in blinkers. Best Mate was the blue-blood, Desert Orchid the hustler.
It was on that foundation that the fairy tale took flight. Desert Orchid may have got beaten again in the Champion Chase at Cheltenham, but many people still thought him best as a two miler – and then he won over three miles at Liverpool, followed by a sensational all-the-way, ears-pricked victory in the Whitbread over three miles 5 furlongs. Being in that happily chaotic Sandown winners’ circle with David Elsworth, stable girl Janice Coyle and every offshoot of the Burridge clan was one of the happiest experiences of my television life. But it had only just begun.
The next season he won everything. The Tingle Creek and the Victor Chandler over two miles, the King George and the Gainsborough over three miles, and then – wonder of wonders – the Gold Cup itself over 3¼ miles in conditions so rough that all faint-hearts advised withdrawal. But being Dessie, he always gravitated to the eye of the storm, and after becoming front-page news at Cheltenham he practically brought the nation to a halt by then having his first ever steeplechasing fall at Liverpool.
By now Dessiemania was a full-scale epidemic, and it had a good two seasons to run. He won seven more races, including two more King Georges, and got beat in two Gold Cups – and it wasn’t just his colour that was easy to recognize. Everyone had got an inkling of why this was a phenomenon on the hoof. They could see that Dessie did not just want to lead: he loved to rumble. This was no ‘Catch me if you can and if you do I will concede’ front-runner. This was a horse that would race you until you quit.
The memories blur together but two clear images remain: the ‘punch-in-the- stomach’ certainty of Dessie’s jumping as he destroyed his rivals round Kempton in the 1990 Racing Post Chase, and the absolute ‘I-will-not-be-denied’ set of his head and neck as he saw off Nick The Brief and a 2st 7lb weight disadvantage in what was to be his last ever victory a year later at Sandown.
The legend had invaded the ether and was humanizing into the land of the cuddly toy. One day at Kempton a ‘goochie goo’ infant in a pram was stationed next to the paddock. As assorted bay and brown brutes filed past, the child gurgled, ‘Horsey, horsey.’ When a grey finally arrived, the burble changed to ‘Dessie, Dessie.’ Up close the real thing was never so sweet.
Before that closing King George in 1991, David Elsworth had us all down to Whitsbury. With the extraordinary, intuitive, untutored eloquence which has more recently adorned the Persian Punch celebrations, he talked to us about how the strain of getting the now twelve-year-old hero to racing peak was beginning to get both to him and the horse, of how Dessie ‘had to take his coat off at Sandown’, of how the end was near.
Dessie himself put up with the hacks and camera crews with plenty of his old swagger right up until exercise was finally over and Janice put his food in the manger. An eager lensman moved forward to get the cosy picture of ‘Dessie’s breakfast’, and the old fighter’s patience snapped. The white face came up, the ears laid back and the guy was sent panicking through the door. In six decades with Thoroughbreds I have never seen a horse so clearly express the sentiment, ‘Eff off.’
In the search for wider interest, we are apt to drag up all sorts of soft and inappropriate analogies for famous quadrupeds. With Desert Orchid there is no such difficulty. He was the warrior who would not weaken, the horse who led the charge under the banner ‘Fear and Be Slain’. That’s why we loved and admired him more than any other. That’s why his name will live for ever on.Back