By the time Desert Orchid was sent to the Cheltenham Festival for the sixth consecutive year, the by-then virtually white ten-year-old had already earned celebrity status with a popularity that went beyond the normal boundaries of racing. However, the Gold Cup, his chosen race in 1989, was a very different challenge to those he had been set in those previous unsuccessful visits to the Festival. He had twice been well beaten in the Champion Hurdle (including as a novice when sent off second favourite in Dawn Run’s year), had then finished third in the Arkle, and on his last two Festival appearances had been placed behind the top-class two-mile specialist Pearlyman in the Queen Mother Champion Chase.
For much of his career, Desert Orchid had himself been regarded as best at two miles, but his win in the 1986 King George VI Chase (which he won a further three times) on his first attempt at three miles had shown his versatility, something he underlined still further when ending the 1987/88 season with victory in the Whitbread Gold Cup at Sandown over three miles five furlongs. Even so, he had been a notable absentee from the 1988 Gold Cup when rain-softened ground influenced his connections to run him in the Champion Chase instead.
A year later and conditions were foul on Gold Cup day 1989, so much so that the card only went ahead after passing a midday inspection following morning snow and hours of rain which left the going heavy. Nonetheless, Desert Orchid was allowed to take his chance, doing so as the 5/2 favourite in a field which included the two most recent Gold Cup winners The Thinker and Charter Party. As a result, ‘the crowd of over 50,000 witnessed a Gold Cup which overflowed with emotion and drama and is sure to go down in history as one of the great moments in National Hunt racing.’
Chasers & Hurdlers takes up the story of the race after the third last when 25/1-shot Yahoo and Charter Party were the only others still in contention with ‘Dessie’ who had made most of the running:
‘Desert Orchid was in the lead again briefly but Yahoo took over approaching the second last, looking all over a winner; Desert Orchid gave every appearance, as he came under pressure between the last two, of having little left. But appearances proved deceptive. Desert Orchid responded gamely and refused to give up. Crossing the last almost upsides Yahoo, Desert Orchid staged a tremendous rally, edging left towards his rival before being straightened and forging ahead halfway up the run-in. With the crowd roaring him on, the firmly-ridden Desert Orchid pulled away for a length-and-a-half victory.’
His jockey Simon Sherwood, unbeaten in nine rides on Desert Orchid up to and including the Gold Cup, said afterwards ‘I couldn’t believe how well Yahoo was going. On any other horse you would have thought it was all over. But in the end it was all down to guts. I have certainly never ridden a braver horse – and never expect to either.’ Sherwood retired at the end of that season but there were still two more Festivals – and two more Gold Cups - for Desert Orchid. He started odds on a year later when third to 100/1 shot Norton’s Coin and filled the same position behind Garrison Savannah in 1991.