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Last Updated: Monday, 13 November 2006, 13:12 GMT
Obituary: Desert Orchid
Desert Orchid
Desert Orchid's grey coat grew whiter with age
Desert Orchid, or simply "Dessie" to his millions of fans, created history by becoming the only horse to win the King George VI Chase four times.

The sight of the grey flying over the fences at Kempton Park or Cheltenham was one of the most memorable in National Hunt racing.

And when he won the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 1989, three cheers rang out among his thousands of adoring followers as he was being unsaddled.

Yet his success nearly did not happen.

He fell at the first in a novice hurdle at Kempton in 1983 and when he took ages to get to his feet, it seemed the race might have been his last.

Desert Orchid was a grey gelding by Grey Mirage out of Flower Child. After initially impressing as a novice, his early career was undistinguished.

In 1984-85 he won only one out of eight starts - he was pulled up in the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham, the Welsh Champion Hurdle at Chepstow and, on his final outing of the season, fell at Ascot.


What changed his fortunes was switching to bigger obstacles. On Boxing Day at Kempton in 1986, he ran out a spectacular 15-length winner over Door Latch in the King George VI Chase.

One of his best seasons was in 1988. After winning the South West Pattern Chase at Wincanton, Dessie went on to take the Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown, before his second King George at Kempton on Boxing Day.

He then landed the Victor Chandler at Ascot and the Gainsborough Chase at Sandown for trainer David Elsworth.

But his career highlight came at the 1989 Cheltenham Gold Cup, over a longer distance and more demanding track than his Kempton successes. The rain and snow had fallen relentlessly at Cheltenham, making the going heavy.

Not only did he dislike the conditions, he preferred right-handed courses.

A crowd of more than 58,000 witnessed Desert Orchid's huge effort in overhauling the mud-loving Yahoo up the long hill to the finish.

Umbrella-holding racegoers joyfully bounced up and down, while others threw hats into the air, in the climax to a contest which was later voted race of the century by readers of the Racing Post newspaper.

Desert Orchid
Desert Orchid won 34 of his 70 races
After his length-and-a-half victory, Dessie'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."

He was 4-6 favourite for the King George again the following Boxing Day, and did not disappoint.

Third place in the 1990 Cheltenham Gold Cup, when 100-1 chance Norton's Coin claimed a shock victory, preceded his convincing win in the Irish Grand National at Fairyhouse under top weight of 12 stone.

Then, once again on his annual Boxing Day outing at Kempton Park, he won his historic fourth King George.

The gelding, owned by Richard and Midge Burridge, was retired in December 1991 after taking a crashing fall three fences from home in the big Kempton race.

Cheers for the race winner The Fellow were eclipsed by the roar as a riderless Dessie stood up and passed the finishing post.

The gallant grey survived a life-threatening operation the following year. He became a regular at charity events all over the country, and was included in the pageant for the Queen Mother's 90th birthday celebrations.

A special fan club was set up in his honour, and thousands of people joined.

At the height of his popularity, a Christmas card from Australia arrived at Elsworth's Wiltshire yard bearing the address: Desert Orchid, Somewhere in England.

Everybody will miss him and our sympathy goes to his adoring public

Trainer David Elsworth
Dessie was a character who trotted on to the set of the BBC Sports Personality of the Year show, who Princess Anne rode in a 1992 charity race and who helped raise cash for good causes.

He even supplied inspiration for the government of the day with Chancellor of the Exchequer Norman Lamont metaphorically saddling the nation's favourite racehorse as he rose to address the House of Commons in a Budget speech.

Lamont said: "Desert Orchid and I have a lot in common. We are both greys; vast sums of money are riding on our performance, the Opposition hopes we shall fall at the first fence and we are both carrying too much weight."

Dessie enjoyed a happy retirement and when Elsworth moved to Newmarket, his stable star joined him until his death at the age of 27.

"It's amazing how many letters we get a day asking about his welfare, he's amazing," said the trainer in 2005.

Desert Orchid won 34 of his 70 starts, amassing 650,000 in prize money.

He was perhaps the best-loved racehorse of his era, adored by the public and a great advertisement for the sport of steeplechasing.

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