According to Timeform, Desert Orchid was the third best steeplechaser since the mid-1960s, rated inferior to only Sprinter Sacre and Kauto Star, by 5lb and 4lb, respectively. The plucky grey – he became almost white with age – won 34 of his 70 races, but captured the public imagination perhaps more than any other horse of modern times. Of course, his eye-catching colouration made him easy to pick out in his races, but beyond that he became known for his bold, front-running style, his tenacity and his extreme versatility.
In 1988 alone, he won the Tingle Creek Chase – in those days, a limited handicap – over 2 miles at Sandown, the King George VI Chase over 3 miles at Kempton, the Martell Cup over 3 miles 1 furlong at Aintree and the Whitbread Gold Cup over 3 miles 5 furlongs, also at Sandown. The following season, he won the Victor Chandler Chase over 2 miles 1 furlong, the Gainsborough Chase over 3 miles at Sandown, the King George VI Chase and the Cheltenham Gold Cup over 3 miles 2½ furlongs.
All in all, he won the King George VI Chase four times, in 1986, 1988, 1989 and 1990, but his crowning glory was his victory in the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 1989. On heavy going, bordering on unraceable after overnight snow, he overhauled confirmed mudlark Yahoo in the closing stages to win by 1½ lengths. Jockey Simon Sherwood said afterwards, “I’ve never known a horse so brave. He hated every step of the way in the ground and dug as deep as he could possibly go.”
His preference for going right-handed, possibly due to his natural disposition to wander in that direction when fatigued, limited his effectiveness at Cheltenham. Nevertheless, in four appearances at the Cheltenham Festival he never finished out of the first three, chasing home Pearlyman in the Queen Mother Champion Chase in 1988, winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 1989 and finishing third in the same race behind Norton’s Coin and Garrison Savannah in 1990 and 1991, respectively.