The grey eminence: death of a racing legend

It wasn't just the colour of his coat that turned Desert Orchid into a racehorse whose popularity verged on the mythic. It was also that his virtues of strength, heart and courage were easily understood and struck a chord with the public at large
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Though he was granted the sort of retirement he deserved, long and vital, Desert Orchid has for many years already been the Ghost of Christmas Past. Even as he pranced before the stands at Kempton on Boxing Days, paraded in the minutes before the King George VI Chase - skittish and spry as he was, shimmering in the winter sunshine - he had become a spectre. For in the history of jump racing he was long ago assured immortality. He might as well have been carved out of chalk downland.

In winning the race four times, he lit up the shortest days of the year like an ancient pagan carnival. When he soared over the last fence, time after time, he was like a cold, white ray of sunshine dependably blazing into a narrow sporting shrine. After all, man has no more primitive need than something to clear his hangover on Boxing Day.

As it happens, the man who supervised his apotheosis was once a night guard at Stonehenge. For a time, David Elsworth also had a fabrics stall at Devizes market. During his struggles on the periphery of racing, Elsworth could have no idea what destiny had in store, but he never became hardened against the most romantic possibilities.

Yet even this singularly engaging trainer, as instinctive a horseman as might have crossed his path - to their mutual, random benefit - contributed fairly little to the myth that eventually grew around Desert Orchid.

For this was one of those uncommon horses that did not rely on those around him to explain himself. Even Seabiscuit, after all, was largely assembled from the different adversities experienced by his jockey, trainer and owner. His own rise from destitution, as a former cripple, only gained its resonance from their struggles.

And that tends to be the way. More or less by definition, the racehorse is a docile creature. His limbs and instincts are harnessed daily to a parody of the impulses that govern the herd in the wild. Think of the brutes, thousands upon thousands the world over, engaged in functional, cyclical mediocrity. It is nearly as bad as being human.

Those of us who discover meaning and stimulation in racehorses tend to do so because they become the unwitting conduit of some human drama. Yet that was never really the case with Desert Orchid, whose manner of galloping, jumping and competing seemed to frame a very specific character. Before long, he had become universally cherished as "Dessie", and the layman knew his nature as thoroughly and affectionately as any soap opera favourite.

There was a corresponding intimacy to the tributes paid yesterday. Simon Sherwood, who rode Desert Orchid to success nine times in 10 races, described him as "a great friend - brave, tough, intelligent and totally honest".

Colin Brown, who rode him for his first five seasons, was similarly anthropomorphic. "An outstanding character," he said. "He could be stroppy sometimes but he was a real professional. He was very ordinarily bred, but it just shows what can happen in racing. A big engine gets into a horse and they prove to be unbeatable. The first time I saw him he was just a tiny, hairy thing, but he progressed and jumped like a buck. It took me a mile to pull him up the first time I schooled him. Once he strengthened up, you could do whatever you wanted on him. It was like driving a Ferrari rather than a Cortina. He looked as though he was running away with me, but he wasn't - he'd go like the clappers but he was very clever."

Of course, it helped that he was grey. Everyone loves a grey. The clear definition of a grey coat - increasingly clear, as it whitens with age - makes it much easier to see the vivid energy of a horse's physique, of the way he commits his body. And that in turn makes it imperative to admire the source of all that energy: the giant heart, and the mental courage.

And the breed has yielded few thoroughbreds with more obvious pluck than Desert Orchid. It was not just the wholehearted way he attacked fences, or repelled other horses in a finish. At least as expressive was the way he seemed to deal with such different assignments with exactly the same ardour. No steeple-chaser of modern times has been as flexible. He could, and did, win a championship race over three miles and then, in his very next start, drop back to two miles and give 22lb to a specialist at the distance.

Only a freak could have beaten Panto Prince in that brutal battle at Ascot - if they were prizefighters, they would have been picking each other's teeth out of their knuckles afterwards - and later win an Irish Grand National under top weight.

Brendan Powell rode Panto Prince at Ascot that day, in January 1989. "I took him on going down the hill, because the one thing Panto could do was jump," he said. "We matched strides all the way round and going to the last I still thought we'd win. But he'd be three or four wide of you, and then Simon would pull him in and as soon as he got near you he would go and find a bit more. And we had gone some gallop from the word go. It was scary."

Like all pets, "Dessie" turned muteness to his advantage. Men can always undermine athletic endeavour by talking about it afterwards. But an animal sometimes seems to strive only out of fidelity. Of course, almost invariably in Nature they are simply trying to impress girls. But whatever spurred this ageing gelding, he was certainly implacable in his reluctance to surrender.

Which is not to say that he never did. Pets have their foibles. Desert Orchid's was an apparent inability to show his best form around left-handed courses. No matter how proficient he was around Kempton, or Sandown or Ascot, it seemed that he would always be vulnerable around a track like Cheltenham.

And that is why he will always be remembered best for his success there in the 1989 Gold Cup. The King George was off-the-peg for Desert Orchid: it was run around a flat, sharp, right-handed track that enabled him to demoralise his pursuers with the flair of his jumping and the breathless tempo of his galloping. Cheltenham that day could not have been more different, not just because the turns seemed to cause him discomfort, but because the unforgiving climb to the post, on heavy ground, would surely sap all that brilliance, all that exuberance.

Sure enough, though he was left in front three fences out, on the run-in the dour villain, Yahoo, seemed to have flung a lasso around his neck. Palpably, Dessie was beaten. Yet in those next few immortal strides, as emotionally draining for his fans as they must have been exorbitant for his own body, he rallied to win in a photo. And the place went mad. Hats were flung into the rain, strangers embraced.

This was his indelible, defining moment. His courage was so communicable, it was obvious to people who had never seen a race before. Sherwood, who rode him that day, reckoned that he would have won three or four Gold Cups "without question" if Cheltenham were right-handed. But all those glad, yuletide romps around Kempton were mere laps of honour. It was those feet of clay, at Cheltenham, that brought him closest to the public.

And it almost seemed as though he knew as much. He started his career, and ended it, at Kempton - scene of seven of his 34 wins, and all his most celestial displays. But he began with such a terrible fall, in front of the grandstand in a hurdle race, that he lay winded for five minutes and his callow owners assumed that he would be put down on the spot.

And he finished, in the 1991 King George, by crashing to the ground at the third last. This time, however, he leaped straight back on to his feet, gave the prostrate Richard Dunwoody a cursory kick, and galloped past the stands on his own - saluted by cheers even louder than those that had greeted the winner. He did not want to share the plaudits with a jockey. And, with his fires finally fading, he certainly did not want to share them with another horse.

Desert Orchid will be be buried a few yards away, near his statue by the parade ring. "He departed from this world with dignity and no fuss," Elsworth said. "He did his dying in the same individual way he did his living. It was time to go."

Now his flickering white shadow will always taunt later champions, provoking them to match his brio, his showmanship, his naked willpower. He haunted One Man in the Nineties - outlived him, too - and now another exuberant grey, Monet's Garden, will be in eerie, intimidating company when he comes to Kempton this Christmas. Never mind a white Christmas. Racing's winter solstice will always be grey.

Jumping for joy Dessie's finest moments

* 1988 Whitbread Gold Cup

On his ninth outing of a hard season in which he had met defeat in the Tingle Creek Chase, King George and Queen Mother Champion Chase, he gave his doubters a good slapping by making virtually all the running under 11st 11lb, drawing away up the hill to beat old rival Kildimo, who loomed upsides at the last, by two and a half lengths.

* 1989 Victor Chandler Chase

The will to win, part I. He carried 12st; the next in the handicap, Panto Prince, 10st 6lb. The pair set off in front as if pursued by demons and duelled all the way. Panto Prince landed marginally first over the last but Desert Orchid's heart and the will of the crowd put the white nose in front of the black horse on the line.

* 1989 Cheltenham Gold Cup

The will to win, part II. He hated left-handed, undulating Cheltenham (right) and on a foul, sodden day seemed down and out when mudlark Yahoo led over the last. But our hero rallied and, remarkably, quickened, edging towards the leader as if to mug him before landing the fairytale by a length and a half.

* 1990 Irish Grand National

Three weeks after a gruelling battle with, and defeat by, Norton's Coin and Toby Tobias in the Gold Cup, he went to Fairyhouse and, under 12st (giving 28lb to all but one rival) made virtually all to win by 12 lengths, though he gave the faithful one horrible moment as he tried to gallop through, rather than over, the last.

* 1990 King George VI Chase

After a winless season, it was the usual Christmas cracker at Kempton. At the age of 11 he produced a vintage display to take an unprecedented fourth edition of the mid-season showpiece, galloping with all his old zest and jumping quite brilliantly to beat Toby Tobias by 12 lengths with The Fellow, winner of the next two runnings of the King George, back in third.


'Greatest horse you could wish to ride'

* David Elsworth (Desert Orchid's trainer): 'He was 27 years old and we had been involved with this wonderful horse for a quarter of a century both in his racing days and retirement. Everybody will miss him and our sympathy goes to his adoring public that never ceased to take opportunities to see him.'

* Colin Brown (Desert Orchid's jockey from 1983 to 1988): 'Once he strengthened up, you could do whatever you wanted on him. It was like driving a Ferrari rather than a Cortina. I owe my career to him. I do corporate hospitality these days and whenever I mention that I used to ride Desert Orchid even the most bored people in the room are suddenly interested. He had a fantastic retirement. When I used to ride him in the parade before the King George he looked as though he was running away with me but he wasn't. He'd go like the clappers but he was very clever. He would pull up when you wanted him to.'

* Simon Sherwood (Desert Orchid's jockey in 1988 and 1989): 'He was a great friend and was just the greatest horse you could ever wish to ride in a race. He was brave, tough, intelligent and totally honest. The Gold Cup [right] was really special but the other race I'll always enjoy is the Whitbread he won off top weight over a trip that most people thought he'd probably never get.'

* Richard Dunwoody (Desert Orchid's jockey in 1990 and 1991): "He was a fantastic horse and without doubt the best horse I ever rode in my entire career.'

* Edward Gillespie (managing director at Cheltenham): 'Racing was blessed by such an easily recognised hero who battled to the line, often achieving victory in a dramatic last stride.'

* Martin Broughton (British Horseracing Board chairman) 'Desert Orchid was a horse of great talent and flair who became an icon for racing. He was the most-loved horse of recent decades and so many of his thrilling, brave victories will live long in the memory.'

* Brendan Powell (rider of Panto Prince in the 1989 Victor Chandler Chase at Ascot): 'Desert Orchid and Panto Prince matched strides all the way and going to the last I still thought we'd win but Dessie was an amazing horse. He'd be three or four wide of you and then Simon [Sherwood] would pull him in and as soon as he got to you he'd find a bit more.'