‘Part equine athlete, part pet and part celebrity’

Paul Hayward on the retirement of a great sporting hero

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The Independent Online

28 December 1991

Whoever said that heroes are fine until you meet them clearly never encountered Desert Orchid, whose 10-season career ended yesterday in retirement. Half the attraction of this pearly white steeplechaser was that he disappointed nobody, could not answer back and possessed none of the often ugly flaws which characterise modern sport.

Each of the many thousands of adherents who were acquired as Desert Orchid’s successes accumulated will find their own way of recalling the most dreamy tale racing has produced in its 200 years. The safest and simplest way to remember him is as a top-class racehorse whose wins in the King George VI Cup, Irish National and Whitbread Gold Cup established him as one of the best since Arkle.

For seven years or so, Desert Orchid has been part equine athlete, part pet and part television celebrity. At the risk of straying into psychology, you wonder whether he became so adored because he exemplified the myth of the white horse, the unfailing friend, even the force for good. Certainly, if he had been shipped out to Hollywood, his rider would not have been the brutally scarred one dressed in black.

Maybe the hordes who crammed country roads when Desert Orchid was running at Devon or Wincanton really were there in the cause of sporting excellence. But when they queued to buy Desert Orchid tea-towels and umbrellas it was hard not to think anthropomorphism was at play. If a horse can inspire this type of devotion, think how easy it is for demagogues.

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