Some horses need little introduction, even after the passage of decades since their glory days. In chasing parlance, these are the Winter Kings, and the biographies of some of the greats of yesteryear are set out in the 1968 book with that title by Ivor Herbert and Patricia Smyly, in which the heroics of Easter Hero, Golden Miller, Prince Regent, Mill House and Arkle feature heavily.
A second edition of The Winter Kings was published in 1989, incorporating seven extra horses from the intervening quarter century. The inclusion of one or two of the new inductees at the expense of the brilliant Pendil might make for a stirring debate, but despite the fact that he was featured while his career was far from over, no-one would begrudge Desert Orchid his place in that particular hall of fame.
Few horses have captured the imagination of the racing public quite like Desert Orchid did in the nine years that he raced, and to attempt to do justice to his story in one essay is impossible. He defied convention and expectation – having failed to complete on his last four starts over hurdles, he immediately morphed into a spectacular if headstrong jumper of fences.
Said to be a short runner who needed firm ground to be effective over a testing two miles, he ended up gaining his most significant win over 3¼m on near-unraceable ground. Pity the racing scribe who tried to pigeon-hole Desert Orchid.
He showed potential frailties which always had the opposition queueing up to take him on, but he defied the conventions of handicapping with a supreme will to win which carried him to victory after famous victory, 34 in all in 70 races which ended with a fall in the 1991 King George Chase at Kempton, a track which most people associate as his favourite.
It’s true that he won seven times at Kempton Park, and his four King George wins was a record which seemed unlikely to be broken at the time, but he actually won more often at Ascot, where his eight victories included one of the most memorable handicap performances in recent steeplechase history.
A battle whch defined a champion
That race was the 1989 Victor Chandler Chase, at the time a limited handicap, but now run at level weights under the guise of the Clarence House Chase. By the 1988/89 season, Desert Orchid had shrugged off the reputation as simply a brilliant two-miler, his victory over Kildimo in the 1988 Whitbread Gold Cup proving that his stamina was not to be questioned, although his ability to drop back to the minimum was the subject of some debate.
A brilliant win in the Tingle Creek in early December preceded his second King George win, but with Panto Prince reportedly disadvantaged by a sore under his saddle at Sandown and race favourite Vodkatini in one of his recalcitrant moods, some questioned what the Tingle Creek form was worth.
Both Vodkatini and Panto Prince showed themselves better than they could prove in the Tingle Creek on their next starts, with the former consenting to start in the King George, and running a truly remarkable race on his first try at three miles. By necessity, he had to be led in at the start by trainer Josh Gifford, and as a result he led over the first fence before Desert Orchid took over, and seeing so much daylight in a small field of five meant that he showed the other side of his character, pulling fiercely under Peter Hobbs and refusing to drop his head.
Remarkably, Vodkatini was still pulling as he jumped upsides Desert Orchid at the third last before those exertions told, and eased after a mistake at the last, he was beaten just nine lengths into third. That effort came over a trip beyond his best and was at level weights, but in the early-closing Victor Chandler he would be 23lb better off, and all the shrewdies reckoned him a good thing to turn the tables – especially if they could delay their bets until the mercurial Vodkatini had jumped off.
Panto Prince was also in the picture for the Victor Chandler, although winning the ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ Handicap Chase at Kempton the day after Dessie’s King George meant a penalty to carry, although his win meant that he was arriving at Ascot on top of his game, and he’d advertised his class when a battling second at level weights to dual Champion Chase winner Barnbrook Again in the Haldon Gold Cup at Exeter in the autumn.
The money in the morning of the Victor Chandler was all for the well-treated Vodkatini, who had been backed with the sponsors at 11/8, although confidence dried up a little when his backers saw his typical reluctance to line up. Once again led in by his trainer, Vodkatini jumped off on terms, but it was Desert Orchid and Panto Prince who quickly began to dominate, much to the relief of Peter Hobbs, whose mount again pulled like a bronco, but at least with a strong pace to settle behind.
At the first ditch, Desert Orchid saw a long stride and Simon Sherwood typically allowed his mount to stand off rather than try to fight him. Dessie landed steeply, but handled the ditch well, unlike the following Vodkatini, who tried to imitate the flying grey, only to find that such tactics were unwise. Barely reaching the fence off such an outlandish stride, Vodkatini crashed out in spectacular fashion, leaving Panto Prince in front from the flying grey.
While Desert Orchid was still capable of seeing a big stride, and brave enough to commit himself to it even without the bidding of his rider, it was noticeable that Panto Prince was frequently quicker away from his fences, and even Dessie’s prodigious leap at the ditch failed to gain him an advantage. Thus the race went, with both horses attacking their fences, but Panto Prince, under Brendan Powell, able to maintain an advantage by hitting his stride immediately on landing. Approaching the home turn, the pair were briefly joined by Long Engagement, but that rival cracked in the heat of battle, and the race was again a match with two to jump.
Over the last two fences, it appeared that the class of Desert Orchid would shine through, but Panto Prince was not for bending, and although passed in the air by the topweight over the last, he was again the quicker away from the fence, and regaining a half-length lead, it must have seemed to Brendan Powell that he had ridden the perfect race to undo the nation’s favourite, but Desert Orchid rallied again, with reserves from who knows where, and the pair were locked in battle as they hit the line. The verdict, when it came, was victory by a head to Desert Orchid, but only in the last despairing stride.
I asked Brendan for his reflections on one of jump racing’s best-loved battles, and he points to one feature which changed the course of that race, and would do the same in the Gold Cup itself two months later:
“Dessie was a fantastic jumper, but so was Panto Prince. The difference was that Panto was so quick at the back of a fence - that’s where he gained ground. I took Desert Orchid on because of the weight concession and it nearly paid off.
“I thought we had Desert Orchid after the last, but Simon manoeuvred him to the right to eyeball us; as soon as Dessie was pulled into another horse, he fought back, and that move by Simon made the difference. I was absolutely gutted on the day, but when I look back, I was proud of him for giving 100%.
“I learned from that, and the next season I won the Tingle Creek on Long Engagement by delaying my challenge until after the last and staying away from Desert Orchid.”
Good horses can win races based on innate talent and good training, but in a rare few there is an absolute desire to dominate, and that sets them apart. Desert Orchid was one of those; the manner in which he bore down on Panto Prince in the final 100 yards at Ascot, just as he bore down on Yahoo at Cheltenham in that memorable Gold Cup, had nothing to do with him being a better horse ‘at the weights’, as he appeared palpably beaten.
If you doubt whether horses really understand that they are racing rather than merely running around in circles, then seeing Desert Orchid lunge at, and then pass Panto Prince ought to convince you that at least some really do.