Undoubtedly one of the most popular British race horses of all time was the wonderful Desert Orchid.
Known throughout the bulk of his career as ‘Dessie’, the gelding’s popularity came from a number of areas. First, he was a grey, and casual watchers tend to love grey horses as they stand out so much.
Dessie also captured the imagination of racing professionals and neophytes alike because of his aggressive, front-running style of racing, his bombproof will and attitude, as well as his great versatility.
During his career, Desert Orchid ran approximately 180 miles on the track, faced up to over 1000 fences and won some 34 races. Among those wins were a Cheltenham Gold Cup, four King George VI’s, the Whitbread Gold Cup and the Irish Grand National.
Desert Orchid’s Pedigree
Eventually reaching 16.2 hands high, Desert Orchid was bred by part-owner Midge Burridge’s former husband James. The dam, Flower Child, was James’s hunter who herself was known to be tough.
Changing over the years, a notably cute foal tuned into a rather strange-looking yearling with a black tail and mane. A wiry-looking two-year-old, Dessie was always single-minded according to the breeder with his early work undertaken by Midge herself before the professionals were asked to get him race-ready.
|Sire/Dam||Grand Sire/Dam||Great Grand Sire/Dam|
|Grey Mirage I||Double-U-Jay||Major Portion|
|Fair Inez||Prince Chevalier|
|Grey Orchid||No Orchids|
Dessie ran his first race in public in 1983. After falling heavily at Kempton in his novice hurdle, he took a while to get back up but nobody at that stage was to know how brave he was.
His novice hurdling career was a good one. During 1983 and 1984 he won a number of times, including in the Kingwell Hurdle. He went to the Champion Hurdle after that, making most of the running before being well beaten.
After that, Dessie wasn’t eligible for novice hurdles. His form dipped and in fact he was pulled up in the Champion Hurdle and Welsh Champion Hurdle and fell on his final 1984/85 start at Ascot.
Trainer David Elsworth was then to switch Dessie to chasing. He won four in a row before unseating and was then placed three more times in his first chasing season.
An improving chaser, Desert Orchid won over two miles at Ascot before heading to Kempton Park for the King George VI Chase. He won that by a yawning 15 lengths at 16/1, beating a field that included major stars Forgive N’ Forget, Wayward Lad and others. He eventually dropped back to two miles but finished fifth in the Champion Chase at Cheltenham.
Dessie was then very consistent without winning, finishing placed over two miles at Sandown, in the King George over three, as well as at Wincanton and Cheltenham. He did get back to winning ways in 1988 however, taking the Martell Cup at Aintree and the Whitbread Gold Cup at Sandown.
After winning under a huge weight Victor Chandler Chase, Dessie went up to 3¼ miles to have a crack at the Cheltenham Gold Cup. After heavy rain and snow the ground was against him as, it was thought, was the left-handed track.
In front of a very vociferous crowd, Desert Orchid heroically clawed his way past soft ground lover Yahoo to win the Gold Cup by just half a length. Dessie won eight in a row at this point in his glorious career before falling in the Martell Cup.
He went on in 1989 to win at Wincanton, run second in the Tingle Creek and win a third King George on Boxing Day. He also won the Racing Post Chase at Kempton that season.
He began the 1990/91 campaign by finishing second in the Haldon Gold Cup before running fourth in the Tingle Creek and landing yet another King George at Kempton Park
His final victory came at Sandown on February 2nd, 1991 before he ran third in the Gold Cup in March. He retired after running three more times at Wincanton, Huntingdon and in the King George at Kempton.
Desert Orchid’s biggest wins:
|Date||Race||Won By (Runner-Up)||SP|
|23/04/88||Whitbread Gold Cup, Sandown||2½ lengths, Kildimo||6/1|
|03/12/88||Tingle Creek Chase, Sandown||12 lengths, Jim Thorpe||5/2|
|26/12/88||King George VI Chase, Kempton||4 lengths, Kildimo||1/2|
|16/03/89||Cheltenham Gold Cup, Cheltenham||1½ lengths, Yahoo||5/2|
|26/12/89||King George VI Chase, Kempton||8 lengths, Barnbrook Again||4/6|
|24/02/90||Racing Post Chase, Kempton||8 lengths, Delius||8/11|
|16/04/90||Irish Grand National, Fairyhouse||12 lengths, Barney Burnett||1/1|
|26/12/90||King George VI Chase, Kempton||12 lengths, Toby Tobias||9/4|
Dessie also won a Tolworth Hurdle, a Kingwell Hurdle, three Gainsborough Chases and a Martell Cup.
Though National Hunt horses often don’t earn the sort of prize money on the track that they deserve, Dessie was a big earner. His total win and place prize money amounted to £654,066 which is the equivalent in 2022 of around £1.6 million.
Dessie was bred by the former husband of part-owner Midge Burridge, James. His owners were James Burridge, Midge Burridge, Richard Burridge and Simon Bullimore.
Famously, he was trained by David Elsworth who had a wonderful career in both National Hunt and Flat racing.
The grey also made several jockeys famous. In his hurdling career and in his early chases, Colin Brown was his regular rider. They were partnered over 40 times. After that, Richard Linley and Graham Bradley also rode the horse.
Later in his career Desert Orchid was partnered regularly first by Simon Sherwood and then by Richard Dunwoody.