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The Independent Online
BOXING DAY 1991, and a high-flying hero came to earth. The Fellow won the King George VI Chase at Kempton, but all eyes were on a grey horse sprawled on the ground. The fallen one struggled to his feet, cantered riderless past the stands and recei ved anovation to match that of the winner.

Although the crowd did not know it for certain until the following day, they had witnessed the end of an era. It was Desert Orchid's last race. It was perhaps fitting that his glittering 72-race, 34-win career should end with a fall at Kempton, for that is the way it had begun, 10 years earlier. In between, he had made the track - and the Christmas holiday - his own, with an unprecedented four wins in the big steeplechase from five previous appearances in it.

He had become a Boxing Day dish for the festive faithful, the mighty throng who made the pilgrimage to the former gravel pits at Sunbury and those, stuffed with turkey and pud, who watched on the box. The impression he did of Pegasus over the fences in the straight used to quicken the heartbeat of professionals and racegoers alike, and his exploits lifted him out of sport and into the public domain.

As the years progressed his trainer David Elsworth had felt the increasing responsibility of fielding the nation's idol in a risk sport. He said: "The build-up was always a period of apprehension, and great relief afterwards, when it was all over and he came home safe. The first year he won it, 1986, was the best. He was one of the outsiders, and I was the only person at Kempton who fancied him. To this day I can't understand why, but it made it a good Christmas."

Desert Orchid started favourite for the next four runnings of the King George, finishing second to Nupsala in 1987, then notching up the only hat-trick in the race. By 1991, though, the writing was on the wall for the then 12-year-old. He was finding it increasingly difficult to compete against younger rivals, and if he had been any other horse he probably would not have run. He was behind and out of contention when he fell at the third-last. Like Bradman, he had failed to score in his last test, but the cheers he took that Boxing Day were straight from the heart.

Elsworth, less in the limelight now, still sees his old campaigner each year, when the horse lodges at Whitcombe around the time of the race named after him at Wincanton in October. He said: "With him around, there was no chance of not suffering indigestion after Christmas dinner - and to be honest, I wouldn't mind having to go down that road again.

"I knew in my heart of hearts we were almost at the end of the road as we went into the 1991 race. The sparkle had gone, and he was beginning to struggle against the younger horses, and was not enjoying it so much. He had a heavy fall that day, which he did not deserve. It was not a day I particularly enjoyed."

Desert Orchid may have captured the headlines, but half an hour earlier that same bright winter's afternoon there had been another, less publicised, fall. At Wincanton a horse called Sayyure and his apprentice jockey Philip Barnard crashed in a hurdle race. Like Desert Orchid, Sayyure got up and ran off unscathed. But unlike Richard Dunwoody, Barnard did not rise. Two days later, when the papers were full of Dessie specials,there also came the news of the death of Barnard from serious head injuries. He was just 21.

There was a collective sigh of relief that Desert Orchid came through his career unharmed, and he will be back at Kempton this Boxing Day to lead the parade for "his" race. His presence will recall the glory days (and for £10 you may have your picture taken with him beforehand, as a personal souvenir) but as you treasure your memories and thrill to The Fellow and company next week, remember the tragedy that lurks so close to the triumph. On Boxing Day three years ago, an era may have ended at Kempton, but a life ended at Wincanton.