Desert Orchid, 'Dessie' or 'The Grey Horse' is arguably the horse most loved by the general public in racing history, eclipsing even the great Arkle and Red Rum in the public's affections.
Desert Orchid & Richard Dunwoody
'Dessie', the most famous grey in racing history, pictured after winning the Irish Grand National at Fairyhouse in 1990 which was his last major win.
See biography of Desert Orchid below.
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See biography below
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Desert Orchid (April 11, 1979 - November 13, 2006), affectionately known as Dessie, was an English racehorse. The gallant grey achieved iconic status within National Hunt racing, where he was much loved by supporters for his front-running attacking style, iron will and extreme versatility. He was rated the fourth best National Hunt horse of all time by Timeform.
Desert Orchid's first season started in an unspectacular fashion. Few who saw him on his debut thought they were watching one of racing's superstars. When he fell heavily in a Kempton in 1983, he took such a long time to get to his feet that it seemed his first race might be his last. David Elsworth's grey was no longer eligible for novice hurdles in 1984/5 and struggled to recapture his early form. He won one of his eight starts this season, in February at Sandown Park. He was pulled up in the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham Racecourse,the Welsh Champion Hurdle, and on his final outing of the season fell at Ascot.
Desert Orchid was then switched to steeplechasing, and ran up a sequence of four wins in at Sandown and Ascot (twice) before unseating at Ascot. He did not win again that season despite three further placed efforts. He was well clear in his final race of the season at Ascot only to make a very serious mistake which totally stopped his momentum. He eventually only finished fifth.
Back at Ascot he won over 2 miles before returning to Kempton Park for the King George VI Chase where he ran out a 15 length winner over Door Latch, easily defeating stars such as Wayward Lad, Forgive n'Forget, Combs Ditch and Bolands Cross. The quality of the field can be indicated by Desert Orchid's starting price of 16/1 -- though the price was also influenced by fears that this speedy front runner would not stay the 3 mile trip. Not only did he stay it but he put in some of the most spectacular leaps ever witnessed from a steeplechaser as he jumped his rivals into the ground. This was Desert Orchid's first win under jockey Simon Sherwood.
He followed up with wins at Sandown and Wincanton, before finishing third in the Queen Mother Champion Chase at Cheltenham, three lengths behind the great Pearlyman. He returned to win over 2?miles at Ascot before being pulled up in the Whitbread Gold Cup on his final outing of the 1986/7 season.
A string of places followed in 1987, second at Sandown (2 miles), second in the King George, and places at Sandown, Wincanton and Cheltenham. He got his head in front on his last two starts of the 1987/8 season taking the Martell Cup at Aintree, which was his first win on a left-handed track, and the Whitbread Gold Cup at Sandown where Simon Sherwood rode him for the first time.
One of Desert Orchid's greatest efforts took place in the 1989 Victor Chandler Handicap Chase where he took on four rivals, including the top-class Panto Prince and Vodkatini. He gave the former 22 pounds and the latter 23 pounds. In a thrilling finish he just got back up after being headed to beat the high class and gallant Panto Prince by a head.
However, his finest hour was still to come. This time he was stepped up to 3 miles and 2 furlongs (5.23 km) for the Cheltenham Gold Cup-he had previously been considered a two-miler. The rain and snow which had fallen relentlessly at Cheltenham made the racecourse going heavy. These were conditions hardly suited to Desert Orchid, especially at this left-handed course which he never particularly favoured.
A crowd of over 58,000 witnessed Desert Orchid's effort to overhaul the mud-loving Yahoo in the final stages of the race. After his one and a half length victory, Desert Orchid's rider, Simon Sherwood said: "I've never known a horse so brave. He hated every step of the way in the ground and dug as deep as he could possibly go". Three cheers were called as Desert Orchid was unsaddled, surrounded by thousands of fans. The race was voted best horse race ever by readers of The Racing Post
In 1989 Desert Orchid again won at Wincanton, this time with a new jockey, Richard Dunwoody. After a second in the Tingle Creek Trophy he headed for Kempton where he took his third King George,this time as the 4/6 favourite. He followed up with a win at Wincanton and then took the Racing Post Chase at Kempton. The Racing Post Chase of that year included many top class handicappers and graded horses but Dessie, carrying the huge weight of 12 stone & 3 pounds (77.6 kg), hammered the opposition, led by the top class Delius - a feat the official handicapper said could not be done on ratings. A third in the Cheltenham Gold Cup preceded Desert Orchid's convincing win in the Irish Grand National at Fairyhouse. He was given top weight of 12 stone (76.2 kg), but was even money favourite and won by twelve lengths. This was despite a very bad jump at the final fence.
Desert Orchid did not reappear until November 1990, finishing second in the Haldon Gold Cup. A fourth in the Tingle Creek followed, before the King George VI Chase, which he won for the fourth time.
Desert Orchid had three more races in the 1990/91 season, his final ever victory coming in the Agfa Diamond Chase at Sandown on February 2, 1991. His final start of the season was a 15 length third to Garrison Savannah in the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
In his last season, he was beaten in his first outing at Wincanton, the race he had made his own and which now bears his name. He finished third in the Peterborough Chase at Huntingdon Racecourse before falling when at the rear of the 1991 King George field at Kempton, attempting his fifth win.
His record at right-handed tracks such as Kempton was always substantially better than his record at left-handed tracks such as Cheltenham. He had a tendency to jump to his right especially when tired. This meant that at tracks such as Cheltenham he would lose lengths by drifting to the outside. This tendency can be seen by his runs in the 1987 and 1988 Queen Mother Champion Chase and 1989 and 1990 Cheltenham Gold Cup. On each occasion he entered the home straight wide of his rivals. He only raced left-handed on thirteen occasions. However, all were either early in his career or in top-class races. He raced more times at both Sandown (19) and Ascot (15) then he did left-handed.
His part-owner Richard Burridge has stated that it was for this reason that Desert Orchid would have struggled in the Grand National: connections felt he could do himself serious injury at the ninety-degree Canal Turn especially on the second circuit Richard Burridge, Richard: The Grey Horse: The True Story of Desert.
The official handicapper gave Desert Orchid a rating of 187 heavily based on his substandard (by his high standards) performances on left handed tracks like Cheltenham, where, despite this aversion, he never finished out of the first three in a chase. Desert Orchid epitomised a top class chaser - speed, superb jumping, agility, high tempo gallop, stamina, pride & an abundance of courage - the whole package. His performance in the earlier mentioned Racing Post Chase, a top class handicap in 1989, showed his true ability beating the top class Delius and very good sorts such as Solidasarock and Seagram who all received substantial weight (2 stone plus, over 13 kg, EACH). One of his best performances and one of the best weight carrying performance since the days of the mighty Arkle.
No horse since 'Dessie' has repeatedly and successfully conceded weight to his rivals at the highest level.
Desert Orchid won 34 of his 70 starts, amassing ?54,066 in prize money.
Desert Orchid retired in December 1991, and survived a life threatening operation for colic a year later. He took his summer holidays with the Burridge family at Ab Kettleby, and spent the winter with David Elsworth leading out the 2 year olds and getting ready for his many public appearances. He returned every year to Kempton to lead out the parade of runners for the King George VI Chase.
During his retirement, he raised thousands of pounds for charity, and his presence at charity events attracted large crowds.His fan club was run by part owner Midge Burridge and family friend John Hippesley and in the 17 years that the fan club ran they raised over ?0,000 for charity through sales of Dessie merchandise, especially his racing calendar.
When David Elsworth left Whitsbury after 25 years the amazing grey packed up and went with him to Egerton House Stables in Newmarket, Suffolk. But the home of champions and stallions welcomed the old gelding and his trainer with open arms and Newmarket racecourses held their annual press day in 2006 on Dessie's 27th birthday at his stable. He also paraded at the course to the delight of his fans.
Desert Orchid was no longer ridden due to his age and David announced that his appearances would be fewer, and nearer to home, as he was now such a senior citizen, though still so keen to greet the crowds that thronged to see him. Dessie's last public appearance was on October 1st at his fan club open day which was held at the National Stud in conjunction with stallion parades. The next day Dessie was exhausted, once again he had given his all and loved every minute of being in the limelight.
It was clear that Desert Orchid was now frail, but his spirit never wavered. In the week of November 6th he began to have trouble with coordination and those close to him were summoned to say goodbye. A vet was on standby should his assistance be needed to speed the horse on his way. It was no surprise to his trainer that to the last Desert Orchid was in control - and the vet was not required. Last seen by those who loved him best at Egerton he was lying down but nibbling his hay. One hour later at 6:05am, Monday the 13th November, The Grey Horse passed on.
Desert Orchid's ashes were buried in a private ceremony at Kempton Park Racecourse near his statue the week prior to the King George. His presence on the day was much missed. The inaugural running of the Desert Orchid Chase on the 27th was preceded by the unveiling of the headstone for his grave, videos of his finest hours at the track, and a moments silence in his honour. The race was won by Voy