Once his education had whittled the rough edges off his running style, the English steeplechaser Desert Orchid accomplished so much on the turf courses of his homeland that he became national hero.
He fell more than a few times. But he was never hurt so seriously that his career as a jumper was in any jeopardy. He always rose from the sodden turf. And he always regained his winning ways.
His popularity came from a delicious mixture of charisma, looks, longevity, and on-track excellence.
He was so white in color that if the Lone Ranger or Hopalong Cassidy strode through a paddock and hopped on board no one would have questioned whether he could have been Silver or Topper.
White as a ghost or the flakes from an oldtime Ivory Snow box.
And he flew from the starting line to set the pace in his races — whether they be on right-handed or left-handed courses or whether they be two miles or more than three miles.
His races usually found the coordinated white blazer leading a large field over the jumps or hurdles, often leading from beginning to end.
The racing writers in England found Desert Orchid’s racing style and authoritative ways to be to their liking. Those bettors and
race-watchers standing from a safer distance also found him easy to find favor with.
It was his will that set in motion how a race would be run. Being ahead in many instances meant he and his jockeys, Simon Sherwood and Richard Dunwoody, could call the pace and the tempo of the long jumping races.
Popularity came to him because of his iron will. Whenever he raced, the public was interested. His ability to go the shorter jumping distances or in those events of more than three miles gave the bettors interest because he was going to be a factor, if not the favorite.
In the beginning, success came only in small helpings.
He fell in a heavy heap in his first race. When he finally rose from that fall there was some reason to believe that might be his one and only hurdles race.
At age five, the gelding won only one of eight tries. And he fell in that year’s last race.
Trainer David Ellsworth took him to steeplechase races. It was better. Four straight wins . . . until his bobble unseated Sherwood at Ascot. In the last race of the year, a clear lead was lost when a near-disastrous mistake led to a clouded fifth place finish.
It was becoming evident that Desert Orchid preferred running on right-handed courses rather than left-handed ones. His success rate was higher. Of his 70 career races, he ran 19 times at Sandown and 15 times at Ascot, both right-handed courses.
With jockey Sherwood aboard, he started a lengthy 10-race string where he would win nine times. That bundle of victories gathered the country’s attention to his corner.
At age eight, no evidence of a slowing found Desert Orchid. He even won the Martell Cup at Aintree, a left-handed course.
At age 10, there came one of his most-remembered efforts. It was at the Victor Chandler Handicap Chase where he carried 22 and 23 more pounds than his two chief rivals.
After losing the lead in the deep stretch, he rallied back to win by a head.
Next came a marathon of a race at 3 1/4 miles. It was the Cheltenham Gold Cup at the left-handed Cheltenham Course. It rained heavily. It even snowed for a time. The turf was water-logged and heavy. The crowd of 58,000 showed the public was interested. It was one of the few times, Desert Orchid wasn’t on the lead. He was able to outslog Yahoo, a thoroughbred whose best efforts came on heavy turf.
In the final 150 yards, jockey Sherwood and his white turbo wore down Yahoo and ground past him for a 1 1/2-length win.
Sherwood was moved to these words: “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.”
The crowd packed tightly around Sherwood and Desert Orchid in the winner’s circle. A call went out for “three cheers” as the circle’s public entourage watched as photos were taken, the white gelding known by then as “Dessie” was unsaddled, and Sherwood weighed out.
The severity of the weather conditions, the unfirm condition of the turf course, and the quality of the competition gave the public reason to vote the race as the best ever in a poll of thousands taken by a publication called the Racing Post.
Still at age 10, rider Richard Dunwoody was introduced to Desert Orchid. The newly formed twosome had two wins at Wincaton, in the Delius and a heralded victory in the Irish Grand National at Fairyhouse, where he won by 12 lengths though toting
168 pounds over the jumps.
At age 11, he had raced twice without winning before finding the King George VI Chase to his liking. He won that race for the fourth time.
Three more times at 11 did he race. His last-ever win came in the Agfa Diamond Chase at Sandown.
Back at age 12, Desert Orchid went racing three more times, finishing second and third before taking a fall in what would be his final try.
His 70 races brought 34 wins, 11 seconds, and eight thirds.
In retirement, he made it safely past an operation needed by a bout with colic. After recovering, his presence was used to help raise thousands of pounds for charity. Merchandise with his likeness, most particularly a calendar, was sold to raise 40,000 pounds.
On his 27th birthday, his frail condition was noted when he was feted on a Press Day at his stable at Egerton House Stables in Newmarket, Suffolk.
Shortly, he would die peacefully and later his ashes would be buried at the Kempton Park Racecourse near his statue. The first running of the Desert Orchid Chase was run in his honor in 2007.
After a halting start to his steeplechase career, Desert Orchid would eventually be acclaimed as one of the most accomplished thoroughbreds in English racing history.
And he did it on the front end where everybody could see his white color.