Assessing the popularity of racehorses from different generations is never easy, but Desert Orchid must surely rank alongside Arkle and Red Rum as one of the most iconic steeplechasers in the history of National Hunt racing. Although officially a grey, Desert Orchid gradually lost his birth colour with age, becoming almost white. As such, he was easy to pick out in a race which, coupled with his bold, front-running style and flamboyant, albeit occasionally erratic, jumping added to his appeal to the general public.
Owned by Richard and Midge Burridge and trained by David Elsworth, the aptly-named son of Grey Mirage I made 70 starts over hurdles and fences, winning 34 of them. His major victories included the King George VI Chase at Kempton (four times), the Cheltenham Gold Cup and the Irish Grand National.
His finest hour, particularly for a horse famously better going right-handed, came at Cheltenham on March 16, 1989. On heavy, almost unraceable, ground, Desert Orchid started 5/2 favourite for the Cheltenham Gold Cup but, having been left in the lead by the fall of Ten Plus at the third last fence, was headed by confirmed mudlark Yahoo on the run to two out. Yahoo maintained the advantage until the run-in, but Desert Orchid rallied on the famous uphill climb to the line, quickening in the closing stages to win by 1½ lengths. Winning jockey Simon Sherwood said afterwards, “Without doubt he could have won three or four Gold Cups if Cheltenham had been right-handed.”
Aside from his victories at the highest level, Desert Orchid also won numerous handicaps, over a variety of distances, under seemingly prohibitive weights. In the Victor Chandler Chase, over 2 miles, at Ascot in 1989, he beat Panto Prince by a head conceding 22lb and the following April won the Irish Grand National, over 3 miles and 5 furlongs, at Fairyhouse by 12 lengths, despite conceding 26lb and upwards to each of his 13 rivals.