Racing: Nation's pet still a firm favourite: Greg Wood finds Desert Orchid is champing at the bit for Boxing Day

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'SO MANY people are excited by the fact that he's still around,' a spokesman for Kempton Park said yesterday. 'One woman got so excited the other day she started crying on the phone.'

'He' is Desert Orchid. His racing career ended at Kempton's Boxing Day meeting two years ago, but the gelding's potent combination of good looks and athleticism made a lasting impression. Eight appearances on the card resulted in five wins (four in the King George VI Chase, one in a novice hurdle), two seconds and a fall, on his last run.

To some spectators he was the only reason for going, and if his guest appearance at the track on Monday is enough to move people to tears, who can tell what might have happened if, as seemed likely, he had succumbed to colic just over 12 months ago.

'This time last year he looked ghastly, like a skeleton,' James Burridge, Desert Orchid's part-owner, said yesterday. 'The vet said he'd got about a 20 per cent chance of survival, but when it all went well he indicated that it had been a good deal less, but he'd said 20 per cent to encourage us. It's largely due to his courage that he got through.'

Burridge looks after Desert Orchid at his Ab Kettleby stud in Leicestershire, where a careful schedule ensures that the former champion chaser stays fit - but not too fit. 'He gets fed in the morning, then goes on the horsewalker for about an hour,' Burridge said. 'Then he's ridden out for an hour, gets a bit of a grooming and is put out into a field for a couple of hours depending on the weather. Then he comes in and has his tea and supper and it begins all over again.

'We try to keep him perky enough to be able to do canters in front of the fans, but at the same time calm enough so that when people take photographs of him, he licks them and doesn't mind being stroked. It's quite a business getting on the tightrope between being over-fit, or on the other hand being too calm and lethargic.'

Desert Orchid's duties at Kempton on Monday include a photocall from 10.30 until 12.00, at which racegoers can be pictured with him for pounds 5, and leading the parade before the King George. If he gets through the former without injuring anyone, and the latter before dark, Burridge's regime will have been proved a success.

Racing, page 21