Brave, tough, honest, the greatest of horses: Desert Orchid is dead

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The Independent Online

Desert Orchid, the iconic grey steeplechaser who became one of the few to jump the fence between reverence within racing and adulation by a wider public, died yesterday. His end - at the age of 27, a tremendous age for a horse - was peaceful, in his own stable in Newmarket, after a brief deterioration in health.

"There was no stress," said his former trainer David Elsworth, who kept charge of the gelding in his retirement. "He departed this world with dignity and no fuss. He did his dying in the same individual way that he did his living. It was time to go."

Dessie, as he was popularly known, won 34 of his 71 races and earned £654,066 in prize money for his owner, Richard Burridge, a businessman. His victories included the Gold Cup at Cheltenham, jump racing's spiritual home, in 1989 but it was his exploits in the more egalitarian setting of Kempton Park - where his ashes will be buried - that made him a celebrity.

At the unlovely suburban track, on the site of a former gravel pit hard by the M3, he notched a record four victories in the sport's other championship, the King George VI Chase, run on Boxing Day. In front of a festive audience on a family day out or on prime-time TV, his obvious talent, his exhilarating front-running style, flamboyant jumping and his dashing colour sent him galloping into people's hearts.

Dessiemania was born, along with his fan club, still going strong even 15 years after his last race. It is usually unwise to be anthropomorphic about animals, but in Desert Orchid's case an honourable exception can be made; he was humbly-bred, had charisma, courage and an iron will to win that set him apart from the herd.

And though racing professionals tend not to be mawkishly sentimental about horses, those immediately involved with Desert Orchid - Elsworth, his assistant Rodney Boult, devoted stable lass Janice Coyle, now-retired jockeys Richard Dunwoody, Colin Brown and Simon Sherwood - felt the magic.

Sherwood, victorious in the Gold Cup and two King Georges, said: "He was brave, tough, intelligent and totally honest. He was just the greatest horse you could wish to ride in a race but was also a great friend."

Brown rode Desert Orchid in more than half of his races. "The first time I saw him, when he was three, he was a tiny, hairy thing. But he progressed, and once he strengthened up, you could do what you wanted on him. It was like driving a Ferrari rather than a Cortina."

One thing that should never be forgotten is that this was an exceptional athlete, champion steeplechaser for five consecutive seasons. If he did have an Achilles' heel, it was that he was a horse not for the best-known course. Cheltenham's left-handed, undulating contours did not suit him and he consistently ran below his best there. It was sheer determination that brought him his Gold Cup victory after an epic battle with Yahoo up the famous finishing hill on muddy, energy-sapping ground.

In his retirement, Desert Orchid regularly appeared at racetracks, most notably leading the Gold Cup and King George pre-race parades. His last public appearance was a charity event in Newmarket last month and both Burridge and Coyle visited him. "We had been involved with this wonderful horse for a quarter of a century," said Elsworth. "Everybody will miss him."