Friday, 11 September 2009

In which I am entirely self-indulgent

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

I have several secret vices. One of my most secret is that when I am in need of reassurance I get out my old racing videos and watch Desert Orchid beating everything in sight. It makes me wildly happy for some reason. It all happened twenty years ago, and yet it never feels old to me.

I was doing this yesterday, and trying to work out what exactly it was about Desert Orchid. He was not the most beautiful horse in training, ‘this woolly thing’, his jockey Simon Sherwood once called him. He did not win everything; there were days when he got beat out of sight by horses whose names are now forgotten. He never went anywhere near the Grand National. And yet he struck a chord in the heart of the nation; crowds would flock to distant courses to see him run; hats would fly in the air on the days when he roared home; hardened commentators gasped when he stood off two strides too soon over his fences. ‘It’s the courage, the courage of the horse,’ one of his fans (he actually had an actual fan club) once said.

It was many things. It was his bold, front-running style. It was his colour, the bright grey that made him stand out. It was the fact that he ran with his ears pricked, which is rare in racing. It was the way that he would give away lumps of weight to other horses and still win. It was that whatever the odds, or the going, or the competition, he would never bloody give up. Sometimes I swear you could almost see him gritting his teeth with determination in a close finish. It was something about his character – the quality that the racing people call, with easy admiration, ‘genuine’. It was, mundanely, that he was around for a while, six long seasons, from his wild novice days, to his seasoned King George triumphs. It was, more fancifully, that he seemed to know, perhaps more than other horses, that he had won, and what that meant. It was that he leapt over his fences like a stag, while others laboured.

He did not come along in a depression, or after a war, like Seabiscuit or Phar Lap, when a weary public needed lifting. It was not exactly that combination of a complicated time and a simple horse. But it was the eighties. It was an era of the rabid free market, of greed is good, of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. The hard conservative ethos had won the argument. Barrow boys in red braces had taken over the City. Money was everywhere, and conspicuous consumption ruled. The internet age was yet to arrive, and mobile telephones were still the size of bricks, email was hardly dreamt of. Yet there was the suspicion of the globalisation and technology age that was about to dawn; there was the sense of that. Perhaps there was something about the sheer, uncomplicated goodness of this brave white horse that took people back to a simpler time. He was not paid a million pound salary, or troubled by notions of sponsorship, or trammelled by politics. He was what he was; he carried conviction, simplicity and the heart of a lion. He would battle through the mud and the rain to do what he was trained to do, without asking a single question. He held his head high. Perhaps there was something in the zeitgeist that responded to that. The British knew that they could not afford to go back to the dark days of the seventies and the three day week, where bodies lay unburied and rubbish strewed the streets. At the same time, there was a faint sense of contamination in the new age of raw greed and naked free markets; money was growing into a god, and it left a faint aftertaste that no amount of Chardonnay could wash down. Could it have been that this glorious, blazing, grey horse reminded Britons of a simpler, better time? They knew that time only existed in their imaginations, but they craved it still. They needed something to represent it; they needed an icon. Desert Orchid was that icon.

And beyond all that, a truly great horse only comes along once in every three generations. The old racing people, who have seen it all, will usually give you no more than three or four true champions after sixty years watching the game. Almost all of them will say Arkle. They might talk of Mill House. And then they will say Desert Orchid. He was great because he won over hurdles, in a flat gallop; he was great because he won over fences, in a collected canter. He could go over two miles, in the sunshine, and over three and a half miles, in the sleet. The story was that he hated going left-handed, but he battled up the hill at Cheltenham to triumph in atrocious conditions, to take the blue riband of jump racing, the Gold Cup. He made history, by winning the King George Chase four times, even when the doubters said he could not make it. He seemed to delight in proving people wrong. He won 34 races and over £600,000 in prize money. All this counts, and yet that was not quite it.

There was something rare and remarkable in him which set him apart from the herd, and made him such a joy to watch. I remember laughing out loud, when he would put in an extra stride and take off outside the wings, so far away from a fence that you could not believe he would land safely on the other side. I remember yelling my head off when he won his final King George. When he finally, miraculously pulled ahead up that endless Cheltenham hill, I cried like a girl. There was something extra in him, which drew tears from the flintiest of eyes. The x factor, that indefinable thing that put him above the rest, was, I think, in the end, incredibly simple. It was that he loved it.


  1. The thing that even us more novice horse aficionados appreciated about Desert Orchid was his absolute human nature. I don't think you can be too anthropomorphic about him. The force of his personality was such that you couldn't but urge him on to win and when he got there he looked like he was laughing along with the rest of us, but I always thought more a delighted hint of 'you thought I couldn't, but look...' than with the relief we felt watching him.

    It helped, as you say, that he was utterly distinguishable from the pack which made it easier to cheer on this streak of lightning - I know what you mean about his spacing before jumps - and he stood out in so many ways. Ma and I cried buckets when he died and we talk about him even now, like we knew him and he was part of our family - how weird.

    PS: I hope you've thought of a way of having your videos transcribed to DVD - when your VCR goes kaput, you'll be snookered. I'm in the painful process of this right now... Have a lovely weekend and hope you have sunshine for walking the dogs.

  2. Reading this post was rather like watching a horse race - superb forward momentum and lovely grand leaps. What a pleasure!

    I'm sorry to say I've never heard of Desert Orchid (being, I guess, American and just starting out as part of the Wall Street machinery in the 80s), but if you ever get those videos on DVD, I'll be the first in line to buy a copy from you.

  3. The horses are so elegant. I really enjoyed reading this very informative post.

  4. Lovely post! When I was a kid, there was a similar horse - going by what you wrote about Desert Orchid - where I live, in the Czech Republic. A plain horse of non-remarkable parentage, bloomed late on the steeplechase circuit...his name was Železník and he became four times winner of Velká Pardubická Steeplechase in my hometown; the fourth time after a fall! Having read about Desert Orchid, I found a short clip on youtube about Železník (here if you are interested, but only in Czech and I weeped a little just as I did when he won the big race for the fourth time.

  5. Reminds me of a Canadian horse I was a fan of from my teens - Northern Dancer. Just a little horse who loved to run, and loved to win!

    Desert Orchid sounds amazing. Thank you for telling us about him.

  6. Dear Tania,

    Your writing makes me so happy.

    That picture takes one's breath away. He is taking off at least two strides away from the fence. Most horses was crash. He didn't.

    I think you've managed to articulate exactly why we fell in love with him.
    And aren't we incredibly lucky to have known him?


    Miss W x

  7. eek! *most horses WOULD crash* -- serves me right for commenting before I'm fully awake.

    -- Miss W


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