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Cheltenham Icons - Horse Racing: A look at Desert Orchid's career

Few horses have captured the public's imagination in the way Desert Orchid did, the grey being affectionately known as 'Dessie'.

Winning 34 of his 70 races in his career, including four King George VI Chases, a Cheltenham Gold Cup and an Irish Grand National, Timeform rate Desert Orchid as the fifth greatest steeplechaser of all-time.

He was known as being tough, versatile and as a horse who loved being on a racecourse.

Kempton the place he made home

Although he had success at several racecourses throughout his career, including at the Cheltenham Festival, it was at Kempton Park that Desert Orchid often produced his best performances.

The right-handed flat course suited him perfectly. He made the Surrey-venue his home with a number of big race successes there.

Dessie won the first of his four King George VI Chase prizes in 1986. Prior to that race, his best performances had come over two miles, so there were doubts about his stamina over the extra distance.

The field for the Grade One contest also included proven stars like Wayward Lad and Forgive n’Forget, which is why he went off at 16/1 in the betting.

David Elsworth's runner made a real name for himself with a spectacular performance, prevailing by 15 lengths.

The popular grey was unable to defend his crown in 1987, but he did score in three consecutive renewals of the prestigious contest between 1988 and 1990.

The latter came at the age of 11 and he ensured at the time he became the first four-time King George winner in history.

Kauto Star recently broke Dessie's record with five King George wins and those two horses dominate the roll of honour at Kempton.

Cheltenham Gold Cup success

Prior to the 1989 Cheltenham Gold Cup, Desert Orchid had not been at his best in the Blue Riband event of the Cheltenham Festival.

The left-handed course, extra two furlongs and uphill finish at the Prestbury Park, often suits out-and-out stayers in the division, rather than classier horses who just about get 3m on flatter surfaces.

When rain and snow fell heavily overnight and on the day of the Cheltenham Gold Cup, conditions were not on Desert Orchid’s side.

Connections of the horse strongly considered pulling their horse out of the race when the official going was described as heavy.

Rather than disappoint a large percentage of the crowd who had come to see their horse, Dessie's owners and trainer opted to take their chance.

He went off as the 5/2 favourite and was able to produce one of the most memorable Cheltenham Festival moments in history, prevailing by just over a length ahead of Yahoo.

So tough were the conditions for the 3m2f contest, only five of the 13 horses finished the race, with the fourth and fifth home doing so at a walking pace. It was Desert Orchid's desire to get his nose in front which really separated him from his rivals that afternoon.

There were moments where he hit flat spots, but on each occasion, he found a second wind to power up the hill for his first and only Gold Cup victory.

Many of those in attendance at Cheltenham and watching at home on television were in tears as he crossed the finish line.

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Chasing success in latter stages

The versatility Desert Orchid had as a chaser was shown again later in 1989 as he dropped down in distance to finish second in the Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown over 2m. He won the Grade One contest at the Esher-based racecourse in 1988.

Another memorable victory for the grey came in the 1990 Racing Post Chase. He was forced to carry 12 stone and 3 pounds in the handicap contest, but it was not enough to prevent him from scoring at his favourite racecourse.

Desert Orchid stepped up in trip again at the back end of the 1989/90 National Hunt season to run in the Irish Grand National at Fairyhouse.

Unsurprisingly, the handicapper handed the former Gold Cup winner top weight of 12 stone. Despite that tough allocation, he went off as the evens favourite for the race and scored by 12 lengths, surviving a late scare at the final fence.

Dessie's last racecourse appearance came in the 1991 King George VI Chase where he attempted to win the race for a fifth time.

Unfortunately for his supporters, he fell in the Boxing Day feature contest and his connections opted to retire their horse following that outing.

In November 2006, Desert Orchid passed away. His ashes were buried at Kempton Park, the most fitting place for his final resting place.

The racecourse then announced one of their novice races during their period would be named the Desert Orchid Chase in his honour.

It's fair to say Dessie will always hold a special place in the heart of his fans and he is remembered as not just a Cheltenham Festival icon, but one of the greatest steeplechasers of all-time.

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