Aside from his innate ability, over hurdles and fences, ‘Dessie’, as he was affectionately known to his legions of followers, always looked like a winner. His grey coat became lighter with age – in fact, always white – such that, in the latter part of his career, he created the impression of a ghostly apparition being pursued across the landscape by lesser, mortal horses.
No mean hurdler – he was sent off second favourite for the Champion Hurdle, when still a novice, in 1983 – it was in his later career, as a steeplechaser, that Desert Orchid captured the public imagination. Renowned for his bold, attacking style and his versatility, he won 34 of his 71 races, including the King George VI Chase at Kempton four times, in 1986, 1988, 1989 and 1990 and the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Indeed, his victory in the Cheltenham Gold Cup was arguably his finest hour; hating the heavy ground and, according to jockey Simon Sherwood, a two stone lesser horse going left-handed, Desert Orchid looked beaten when coming under pressure between the last two fences, but rallied to overhaul confirmed mudlark Yahoo halfway up the run-in to win by 1½ lengths.
Unlike some of the ‘precious’ steeplechasers of recent years, Desert Orchid regularly ran in handicaps, often conceding eye-watering amounts of weight, which only added to his appeal. In early December, 1988, as a 9-year-old Desert Orchid made all the running to give the 81-rated Jim Thorpe 20lb and a very easy, 12-length beating in the Tingle Creek Chase, over 2 miles, at Sandown Park. Just over three weeks later, on Boxing Day, he beat his old rival Kildimo, by a comfortable 4 lengths, to win the King George VI Chase, over 3 miles, at Kempton for the second time and, less than three weeks later, rallied to beat the 83-rated Panto Prince, who was receiving 22lb, by a head in the Victor Chandler Chase, back over 2 miles, at Ascot. In April, 1990, as an 11-year-old, he conceded 28lb to all bar one of his rivals, who received 26lb, in the Irish Grand National, over 3 miles 4 furlongs, at Fairyhouse and won by 12 lengths.