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How Desert Orchid stole the nation's hearts

Rob Bartlett
December 23, 2013
The nation enjoyed a huge affinity with their hero Desert Orchid © Getty Images
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"He was the best horse I ever rode."

While many will be tucking into a slice of cold turkey and leftover stuffing this December 26, Kempton racecourse will again play host to one of the most prestigious horse races in the sporting calendar. The course where stands a radiating, white statue of a public hero - Desert Orchid. For many, their affinity with the King George is entwined with their affection for Desert Orchid.

Richard Dunwoody steered 'Dessie' - as he was known to his adoring public - to successive King George VI Chases, taking his tally to a then-record four wins in the famous Grade One at Kempton. Since it was set in 1990, Dessie's record has only been beaten by one horse; Kauto Star.

Desert Orchid was a silver phenomenon and a horse of a generation. Even in the many years of life following his December 1991 retirement, 'Dessie' continued to draw in the crowds with his commanding presence and regular public appearances. He had spent time capturing the hearts of a nation; in his very first outing in 1983 - a novice hurdles race at Kempton - Desert Orchid fell heavily and remained grounded for what seemed like an age. Many punters believed he would never return to a racecourse.

They were wrong, and perhaps that is where and why the admiration began. This horse would fight from a remarkable fall to establish himself as an all-time great.

"He was this national treasure, he had such a huge following which I never experienced on any other horse so it was great, it was a big privilege to be a part of that team," Dunwoody told ESPN. "He just had a great presence as a horse; he was grey so he stood out. He was a very intelligent horse, so as horsemen you recognise that but he appealed to the public massively. And quite rightly so."

When asked if Desert Orchid was the best he'd ever ridden, Dunwoody replied: "Yes. He was the most talented horse I ever rode, he was the best chaser I rode and he was the highest rated horse I rode."

Dunwoody, a three-time champion jockey during his time in the saddle, partnered Desert Orchid to a third and then-record fourth King George VI Chase win. He admitted that Simon Sherwood, who rode the 'Silver Shadow' for the first two of his Chase victories at Kempton Park, gave him plenty of advice on trainer David Elsworth's star attraction - but remembers there were no real nerves come Boxing Day 1989.

"Obviously it's a big race and it wasn't so much nerves, you just want to make sure you don't make mistakes," Dunwoody said. "In the end, it all panned out well. There were no real problems in the race and he won fairly easily in the end."

2013 King George VI Chase: Ones to watch

  • Following the withdrawal of Captain Chris from Boxing Day's feature race at Kempton, only nine are scheduled to run in this year's King George VI Chase.
  • Cue Card has been given the favourite tag, albeit a slim one, and is priced 3/1 ahead of Dynaste at 10/3. Trainer Colin Tizzard recently admitted a low-key virus had affected his yard, although he was quick to confirm Cue Card was still in excellent fitness.
  • Paul Nicholls has enjoyed seven superb successes in this race, namely with the brilliant five-time champion Kauto Star, and his two runners are well worth backing. Nicholls believes Al Ferof (7/2) will be the main rival to Cue Card, while Silviniaco Conti looked good in the 2013 Cheltenham Gold Cup before falling three fences from home. The latter - also the 2013 Denman Chase winner - is priced 9/2.
  • Two-time winner Long Run is the defending champion - Nicky Henderson's star charge saw off Captain Chris by a neck in 2012, and is a veteran of this race having also finished second to the brilliant Kauto Star. With the going expected to be his favoured soft, Long Run is 10/1 to complete a King George VI hat-trick.

Fairly easily indeed for an 8/11 favourite, who led from start to finish for three gruelling, muddy miles. Sherwood himself was part of the Channel 4 commentary team watching his successor that afternoon and stated that, while Desert Orchid had not jumped as aggressively as he could, he had still impressed. The crowd, besotted by adulation, roared their hero over the last and across the line.

A year later, and the Orchid-Dunwoody partnership was back in Middlesex aiming for a record fourth title. Going off at 2/1 favourite, the pair tackled 19 fences with distinctive grace and guile; something which, years down the line, would be replicated by Kauto Star. Only Sabin Du Loir made a real challenge to the great grey that day, but fell when leading seven fences from home.

"The fourth was the most special - it was his fourth King George and he wasn't travelling well through the race," Dunwoody revealed. "Sabin Du Loir made a real good go of him and he fell I think first down the back, six or seven out. Then things changed, he pulled away very easily and beat Toby Tobias by 12 lengths, so it was a good performance."

It wasn't all easy, though. Desert Orchid endured a wild streak during his youth, often proving a troublesome mount with a fiendish temper.

"Probably getting him down to the start was the most difficult thing about riding him," Dunwoody recalled. "He was a bit keen, so you had to take him steady. There was once or twice where he got a bit of a run on. He was a tearaway in his first few runs and then he ended up on the deck a couple of times over hurdles - he was not an easy ride as a young horse. But I had him and he was great."

Desert Orchid won the Cheltenham Gold Cup, Tingle Creek Chase, Victor Chandler Chase, Irish Grand National and the Racing Post Chase in his illustrious career. He was given a Timeform rating of 187, currently the sixth best rating of a National Hunt chase horse.

But there was one which always eluded him; Aintree's feature race, the Grand National.

"I'm glad he didn't run the Grand National," Dunwoody, a two-time National winner, admitted. "As much for the race as for him because if something stupid had happened, it would have been terrible not just for all the connections and everybody else, but also the race too. So it was a good decision, the only decision that could have been made.

"I'm not saying he wouldn't have won the race, I'm saying if something stupid had happened - if he had been brought down or a loose horse had run into him or he'd have been hurt somehow, it would have been desperate news for the race as well."

It didn't matter that he was never entered into the most valuable jump race in Europe, for Desert Orchid grasped the attention of a nation every time he pricked his ears. He jumped without the fear of a horse whose career had almost ended before it started. It would take a special horse to eclipse Desert Orchid's record of four King George's, but in 2006 Paul Nicholls produced a blinder.

"I didn't envisage it at the time but everything is there to be beaten and what better horse to do it than Kauto Star," Dunwoody said. "Arkel, Desert Orchid, Kauto Star - they were all top of their generation and it's very difficult to compare one with another. They were three great horses."

Desert Orchid died on November 13, 2006 with a record of 34 wins from 70 starts. Having amassed prize money totalling £654,066, his ashes were buried near his statue at Kempton Park racecourse shortly before the running of the King George VI Chase that year. On December 27, prior to the inaugural race run in his memory, Father David Lupton blessed the ashes in a brief ceremony witnessed by 6,000 people.

Richard Dunwoody steered 'Dessie' to successive King George VI Chases © Getty Images
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Rob Bartlett is an Assistant Editor for ESPN UK

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