On what trainer David Elsworth later described as a ‘grotty day’ in March, 1989, the iconic grey Desert Orchid – by that stage, he was almost white – enjoyed what was considered, by many observers, the defining moment of his long, illustrious career. Indeed, 16 years later, the 1989 Cheltenham Gold Cup was voted the ‘Greatest Race of All Time’ by Racing Post readers, ahead of the 1973 Grand National.
Despite racing on unsuitably heavy, almost unraceable, ground – the meeting survived a midday inspection – on a left-handed course, in a field of thirteen, which included The Thinker and Charter Party, winners of the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 1987 and 1988, respectively, Desert Orchid started 5/2 favourite.
Ridden by Simon Sherwood, who unbeaten in eight previous rides on him, Desert Orchid made most of the running and, after the third last, was one of just three horses left in contention. The other two were the aforementioned Charter Party and Yahoo, a 25/1 chance at the ‘off’, but a confirmed mudlark, who was admirably suited by the atrocious conditions. Indeed, it was Yahoo who moved into the lead, travelling sweetly, approaching the second-last fence and, although Desert Orchid rallied, under strong pressure, to jump the final fence almost upsides, the leader still looked the more likely winner.
However, urged forward by Simon Sherwood, and an expectant 58,000-strong crowd, Desert Orchid responded gamely and, despite edging left on the run-in, forged ahead in the final hundred yards or so. At the line, Desert Orchid was 1½ lengths ahead of Yahoo, with Charter Party, who could only keep on at one pace, a further 8 lengths back in third. Sherwood said later, ‘I have certainly never ridden a braver horse – and never expect to either’.