Racing: Desert Orchid back for another swagger on old stamping ground

Racegoers at Kempton Park will pay homage on Thursday to a grey who triumphed four times in racing's biggest Christmas contest
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The Independent Online

The welcome grey ghost of Christmas past appears at Kempton on Boxing Day when one of racing's finest advertisements will once again heave his ageing frame up the present turf straight at Sunbury.

The welcome grey ghost of Christmas past appears at Kempton on Boxing Day when one of racing's finest advertisements will once again heave his ageing frame up the present turf straight at Sunbury.

For while Sunbury may soon be a quite different venue, an all-weather circuit under floodlights, the centre stage in the history books will always be remembered for a single horse.

Desert Orchid, as he nears 24 years of age, will come hurtling past the grandstands on Thursday and we will be able to remember all that is good about racing: the exploits of horses rather than the divisiveness of turf politics.

Dessie was magic for the sport of horseracing. An emotional 1989 Cheltenham Gold Cup victory apart, when the tears turned the official going from heavy to unraceable, he won four of his six King George VI Chases.

Around Kempton he was almost as unbeatable as the bookmakers, and his unimpeachable authority ensured the comparisons started becoming rather grand. Once he had beaten everything of flesh and blood, they started trying to race Dessie against ghosts.

His greatest opponent became a winged figure from the past, Pegasus's younger and faster brother, according to some reports, in Arkle.

"But you can't compare him with Arkle," David Elsworth, Desert Orchid's trainer, says as he boils the kettle at his Whitsbury yard in Hampshire. "I think it was Timeform who said Arkle would have given him 2 stone. That's stupid. Arkle was a wonderful horse, head and shoulders above everything, including Mill House, at his time.

"He won those three Gold Cups and he won very easily but he never beat more than four or five different horses. It was lovely to see a good horse in full flow but he wasn't having any competition.

"Desert Orchid ran in three Gold Cups and probably took on 40 different horses. He managed to win one even if it wasn't his back yard. And he was placed in an Arkle Trophy and a couple of Champion Chases. He'd have won the Gold Cup four times if it had been round Kempton.

"I'm not saying he was a better horse than Arkle, but the way they dismiss him in comparison is a load of bollocks. I'd like to see any horse do what he did at Kempton that day in the Racing Post Chase [gave Delius 2st and the other six, including the subsequent Grand National winner Seagram, 2st 3lb and beat them eight lengths and more]. They were both marvellous horses so why denigrate either by bickering over which was the better?"

Elsworth tells you all this as two brace of pheasant hang on a whitewashed wall outside the kitchen at Whitsbury. The first box you see as you enter the lower yard has a blue plaque outside, the physical sign that a significant being has lived here.

It is hardly misplaced. The metal plate details the facts that Desert Orchid ran 70 times and won 34 races. Along the way he became the Pied Piper of racing, leading many out of their houses and to the racecourse.

Ability, of course, helped him, but to all who believe in an meritocracy comes the comforting belief that Dessie actually did it by effort, that he tried himself to the top.

"He's a funny old boy," Elsworth says. "If you had to make a human comparison, he would be the sort of fella who wouldn't suffer fools gladly, his own man if you like. He is a product of his own making.

"Imagine how far he raced. He ran 70 times, about 170 miles, plenty of them tough races, and when I jump in that car and go to London down all those roads I think about him racing that far and further. Then there was the training.

"As a result of all that, he has become a totally different horse from the one he might have been if he'd got a leg injury early on and just done a bit of hunting. He'd still have been Desert Orchid, but he wouldn't have been the character we know.

"Those years of endeavour made him mentally strong and confident. He became a different horse because of his exploits. He's a hardened old pro.

"He likes people and he appreciates pampering, but he wouldn't come up and lick you or anything like that."

Desert Orchid's owners however would like to cuddle the fates. They know it will not happen in the future. In fact, it has not happened for anyone like this in the past.

"Dessie's career felt surreal to us," Richard Burridge says. "Like everyone else who owns a horse, we started out with the very highest hopes. The difference was that we never got disappointed. We were on a permanent rollercoaster.

"It was a great experience which took me to places I wouldn't have got to otherwise. He got to the heights and stayed there year after year. We've experienced the dreams of everyone who owns a jumper, that pure thrill of the game.

"He may not have changed the course of my life as such, but he did change my signature. It became this terrible squiggle because I was signing so often. It took a bit of time for us to realise that we were all in an almost permanent state of shock. He seemed a gift from God.

"I've come to realise over the years that by some complicated piece of magic I don't really understand that Dessie's completely in charge of his own destiny."