Horse-racing has a wonderful, and continuing, ability to produce horses that capture the adoration of the public. Desert Orchid, just ‘Dessie’ to millions of fans, was one of the best-loved racehorses of his era. The distinctive grey - and he became increasingly white over the years - jumping the fences was one of the most memorable sights in National Hunt racing of the 1980s. His bold, front-running style and distinctive colour were magnetic. No more so than annually on Boxing Day before huge crowds at Kempton Park where Dessie ran in six consecutive King George VI Chase races, winning first in 1986 and then three times in a row from 1988 to 1990.
In 1989, the conditions for the Gold Cup at Cheltenham were wet and heavy and, over the longer course of three miles two furlongs, unfavourable to 10-year-old Dessie.
Peter O’Sullevan’s commentary of that day at Cheltenham, perhaps Dessie’s greatest triumph, remains fresh and thrilling in the memory: “Desert Orchid is slogging it out on the rain-swept turf. The mud-plastered grey will just not be denied. He’s a length down...half a length down....the crowd are going wild. Dessie’s going to win it.”
A statue, beautifully crafted by sculptor Philip Blacker, was commissioned – a rare honour for a living horse – and unveiled in 1991. Dessie stands, resplendent, in a lawned setting overlooking the parade ring at his beloved Kempton Park. Dessie himself would nod in recognition when passing in retirement for he frequently attended not only at Kempton but at various charity and promotional events including the Queen Mother’s 90th birthday pageant. His ashes were laid to rest at Kempton Park beneath his magnificent statue. His ears pricked and eyes alive, his whitening coat glimmering in the sunshine, Dessie is still in the limelight.