Saturday sees the conclusion of the 2017-18 National Hunt season with the Bet365 Gold Cup, at Sandown Park, formerly the Whitbread Gold Cup. Thirty years ago the revered Desert Orchid or ‘Dessie’ as he became affectionately known stormed home to win Sandown’s premier jumping prize.
Established in 1957, The Whitbread Gold Cup was the first commercial sponsorship in British Horseracing and although it’s only a Grade 3 handicap, it often attracts big names making it an interesting contest between Gold Cup, Grand National runners and the season’s novice chasers. At a distance of 3 miles and 5 furlongs, the 24 fence course has thrown up some great winners, including the likes of Arkle and Mill House.
Desert Orchid was by Grey Mirage out of Flower Child and born on 11 April 1979. The grey was bred by James Burridge, owned by Richard Burridge and trained at Whitsbury, Hampshire, by David Elsworth.
As a young horse he had been a menace, jumping out of fields and looking for ways to entertain himself, showing his intelligence and jumping ability from an early age. At three-years-old he went into training. Although he didn’t win a race in his first season over hurdles, he showed promise. A heavy fall at Kempton looked, for a short time, like it would end his career before it had started but, it didn’t, and he went on to win many novice hurdle races in a row including the Kingwell Pattern hurdle at Wincanton in the 1983/4 season under Colin Brown.
In the 1984/5 season, Dessie struggled to recapture his form as a novice hurdler and, after a poor show in the 1985 Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham, David Elsworth switched the grey to steeplechasing. In his first steeplechasing season, he notched up four wins and three further placed efforts. His jockey had to accept his head strong, front-running approach and sit tight.
His success continued through the 1986/7 season, where he made a major breakthrough winning the King George VI Chase at Kempton Park as a 16/1 outsider with his bold front running by 15 lengths with Simon Sherwood in the saddle.
Dessie notched up further wins that season at Ascot, Wincanton and Sandown, as well as being third in the Queen Mother’s Champion Chase at Cheltenham. He was, however, pulled up in the 1987 Whitbread Gold Cup in his final outing of the 1986/7 season. By now, his sheer drive and determination were starting to earn him fans beyond the regular racegoer and he was winning the hearts of the nation.
His 1987/8 season started with a string of seconds until he won at Aintree in 1988, a left-handed track, in the Chivas Regal Cup. It was then that David Elsworth and Richard Burridge decided Dessie deserved a second chance at the Whitbread Gold Cup.
In the run up to the 1988 Whitbread it looked like his luck in the race might once again be marred. Five days before the race, Rodney Boult (head lad) noticed that Dessie was slightly tender in his feet. When his shoes were removed a small corn was discovered. Great care was taken to treat the corn with twice- daily laser treatment and poulticing. However, it failed to heal, therefore, the decision was taken to remove his shoes and exercise him without them. To prevent further damage, he was boxed to and from the gallops and fitted with rubber pads under his racing plates on the morning of the race.
Dessie’s corns had been well publicised and he drifted to 6-1 in the betting, reflecting doubts in his ability to stay the distance with sore feet. Despite this, Elsworth was convinced that he would maintain his unrivalled Sandown record. He was to be proved right.
Partnered by Simon Sherwood, Desert Orchid leapt to the front as soon as the tapes went up. In the glorious sunshine and on good to firm ground, he stayed at the front for the majority of the race until the last fence when Kildimo, a well-established chaser and long-standing challenger over similar distances, headed him briefly under Jimmy Frost (Bryony’s father). However, Dessie’s solid jumping style put him in a strong position on landing and he pulled clear up the hill to win by two and a half lengths.
Desert Orchid’s running of the race raised the roof of Sandown Park, left tears in his trainer’s eyes and confirmed to any doubters that he was a true stayer. His victory in the Whitbread meant that he was once again voted by the Racegoers’ Club as the undisputed National Hunt Champion and earned David Elsworth his only trainers’ championship.
Dessie was campaigned a further four seasons. Under Simon Sherwood he won nine from ten starts and, following their victory in the Whitbread, went on to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup the following season, this time under Richard Dunwoody, following Sherwood’s retirement. However, he did not contest the 1989 running of the Whitbread following a heavy, and uncharacteristic, fall at Aintree.
Dunwoody continued to ride the grey, including finishing third in the Gold Cup in the following two running’s of the race. After falling in the 1991 King George VI chase on Boxing Day ‘Dessie’ was retired. He continued to spend his summer holidays with the Burridge family and winters leading the two-year-olds at David Ellsworth’s, alongside making numerous celebrity (he was, in his own right a celebrity) appearances to raise money for charity. A year into retirement, he survived surgery for colic, once again reflecting his resilient character.
At 25-years-old he moved to Egerton House Stables in Newmarket, Suffolk, with David. Enjoying a quieter life in Newmarket, Desert Orchid lived to the ripe old age of 27 years. He’d had an impressive ten-year career, winning 34 races from a total of 71 starts. The grey gelding had jumped more than 1,000 obstacles winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup (1989), the King George VI Chase four times 1986/88/89/90), the Irish Grand National (1990) and the Whitbread Gold Cup.
He was rated 187 by Timeform, which makes him currently the sixth best National Hunt horse of all time and, thirty years on from his victory in the Whitbread, he is as lovingly remembered as he was then.
We would like to thank Alpha Press for their colour photo of Desert Orchid in retirement and for Ed Byrne for his action photo.
Blog by guest blogger Roz Howling