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

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."

Voices
Stephanie first after her public appearance as a woman at Rad Fest 2014
voices

Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol
art'Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' followed hoax reports artist had been arrested and unveiled
Voices
Oscar Pistorius is led out of court in Pretoria. Pistorius received a five-year prison sentence for culpable homicide by judge Thokozile Masipais for the killing of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp
voicesThokozile Masipa simply had no choice but to jail the athlete
Life and Style
tech

Board creates magnetic field to achieve lift

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
James Blunt's debut album Back to Bedlam shot him to fame in 2004
music

Singer says the track was 'force-fed down people's throats'

News
news

Endangered species spotted in a creek in the Qinling mountains

Life and Style
tech

Company says data is only collected under 'temporary' identities that are discarded every 15 minutes

News
peopleJust weeks after he created dress for Alamuddin-Clooney wedding
Life and Style
A street vendor in Mexico City sells Dorilocos, which are topped with carrot, jimaca, cucumber, peanuts, pork rinds, spices and hot sauce
food + drink

Trend which requires crisps, a fork and a strong stomach is sweeping Mexico's streets

Arts and Entertainment
George Lucas poses with a group of Star Wars-inspired Disney characters at Disney's Hollywood Studios in 2010
films

George Lucas criticises the major Hollywood film studios

Sport
football West Brom vs Man Utd match report: Blind grabs point, but away form a problem for Van Gaal
Life and Style
health

Some experiencing postnatal depression don't realise there is a problem. What can be done?

Arts and Entertainment
Gotham is coming to UK shores this autumn
tvGotham, episode 2, review
News
i100
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Pensions Administrator

£23000 - £26000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

Are you a Teacher interested in Special Needs?

£110 - £150 per day: Randstad Education Preston: Are you a qualified Teacher w...

**ESOL**

£60 - £70 per day: Randstad Education Preston: The Job:* The Tutor will prepar...

Qualified Teaching Assistant Jobs in Blackpool

Negotiable: Randstad Education Preston: Qualified Teaching Assistant Jobs in B...

Day In a Page

Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album