The 1990 renewal of the Cheltenham Gold Cup was supposed to be all about the popular grey Desert Orchid, who had enjoyed arguably his finest hour when getting the better of an epic duel with Yahoo in the ‘Blue Riband’ event in 1989. Although now an eleven-year-old, back on his favoured fast ground Desert Orchid was again sent off favourite, at 10/11, to defend his title.
Ridden by Richard Dunwoody, who had replaced Simon Sherwood as his regular partner, Desert Orchid made most of the running, as he had done the previous year. However, although he held every chance at the second-last fence, ‘Dessie’, as he was popularly known, could find no extra in the closing stages and eventually finished a respectable third, beaten 4¾ lengths.
Victory went to the completely unconsidered 100/1 outsider Norton’s Coin, a nine-year-old bred, owned and trained by Sirrell Griffiths, a permit-holder and dairy farmer from Nantgaredig in Carmarthenshire, West Wales. Remarkably, Griffiths had just three horses in his charge and considered training his ‘hobby’. Reflecting on his extraordinary success some years later, he said, ‘I never had any ambitions and was quite happy just working with the horses at home and having the odd runner in a race.’
Indeed, Norton’s Coin was only entered in the Cheltenham Gold Cup as an afterthought, with Griffiths originally preferring an entry in one of the handicap chases, in which he felt the horse was nicely weighted. However, he missed the deadline for his preferred entry, so he was forced to part with £1,000 for a Gold Cup entry, seeking to finish in the first six to cover his costs.
Victory for Norton’s Coin was undoubtedly a major shock, but there appeared no fluke about it. Ridden by Graham McCourt, the gelding was always travelling well and, although ultimately all out to hold Toby Tobias by three-quarters of a length, broke the course record in the process.