The 1989 Gold Cup: The day Desert Orchid brought the house down at Cheltenham

Fri 15 Mar 2019

Watch our hour-long special on Desert Orchid and his famous victory in the Cheltenham Gold Cup 30 years ago.

On one unforgettable afternoon in 1989, vested interests were put aside as the racing world united as one to celebrate the Cheltenham Gold Cup victory of Desert Orchid.

Few winners of the blue riband before or since have received a hero’s welcome to match the one David Elsworth’s grey did 30 years ago, when claiming the greatest victory of his long and distinguished career.

While the now Newmarket-based trainer can now reflect fondly on the occasion, there were genuine fears at one point that success at the Festival may sadly elude Desert Orchid, who had come up short in five previous visits to the meeting.

Elsworth said: “To be honest if you asked me in those days of defeat at Cheltenham in the Champion Hurdles, Champion Chases and Arkle, would he have ever won a Gold Cup I would have said ‘no, unless you run it at Kempton’.

“I don’t know what was in his mind, as you could gallop him left-handed, but he was a better horse the season of his Gold Cup win and he won left-handed for the first time at Aintree the season before.

“I think going to that Gold Cup he was at the height of his powers.”

'Dessie' arriving for his date with destiny in the 1989 Gold Cup
'Dessie' arriving for his date with destiny in the 1989 Gold Cup

‘Dessie’ headed into the Gold Cup unbeaten under new rider Simon Sherwood and with a third King George VI Chase in the bag – but hopes of finally laying his Festival ghost to rest were nearly scuppered by the weather, with racing only getting the go ahead following a late inspection.

Elsworth recalled: “The ground was desperate, as there had been snow and they said there was an inspection, which I only heard about driving through Cirencester.

“When I got there I daren’t walk on the track, but if they were going to race there was no one better equipped there to deal with the conditions than Desert Orchid. He jumped like a stag and settled in front. He would run on anything.

“The horse had never been better and he was the one best equipped to deal with the conditions. The ground wasn’t ideal, but I don’t think it would have made a difference what the ground was, as he was stronger than them all that day.

“He was so much better than the others. I hate to admit it, it wasn’t a great Gold Cup. If someone like Denman was in it he would have won it. But though the race wasn’t the greatest renewal, it was one of the most exciting.

“Simon Sherwood rode him beautifully and they were a great combination.”

David Elsworth pictured with Desert Orchid in Hyde Park
David Elsworth pictured with Desert Orchid in Hyde Park

Despite looking held by eventual runner-up Yahoo heading towards the second-last there was never any doubt in the mind of Elsworth that his pride and joy would find an extra gear to defeat the 25-1 shot and cement his status as one of the greatest ever staying chasers.

Elsworth said: “I had two runners in the race as I also had Cavvies Clown and by the time I let them both go I thought ‘where am I going to watch the race’, as the place was heaving and I couldn’t go anywhere.

“I don’t know why, but I ended up in the Royal box reception area and there was a television there. I stood there in solitude and had the area to myself. I couldn’t have got a better spot if I tried.

“They did take him on down the back, but he had the legs for them. I feel sorry for the horse Ten Plus that fell in front, but when he fell at the third-last we were in the air together.

Desert Orchid's Gold Cup win captured the hearts of the nation
Desert Orchid's Gold Cup win captured the hearts of the nation

“When Yahoo came up the inside, I was a bit worried – but if you’d stood next to me and said he looks beat I would have said ‘don’t worry, he will run on’.

“He jumped the last and up the hill I knew he would run on and stay on well. I hadn’t chucked the tickets away when that horse come up the inside. The fact he won the Gold Cup was a great relief as the Gold Cup was everything to everybody.”

With spectators jostling for position along the walkway to welcome Desert Orchid back in, Elsworth, while not being part of the immediate celebrations, ensured he enjoyed the victory later that evening.

A statue of Desert Orchid stands at Kempton Park, home of the King George VI Chase, which the gallant grey won four times
A statue of Desert Orchid stands at Kempton Park, home of the King George VI Chase, which the gallant grey won four times

He said: “Everybody wanted Dessie to win, but immediately after the race I went over to see the owner of Cavvies Clown and console her. I didn’t go down the walkway and greet him straight away as winners look after themselves.

“I remember going back to Whitsbury with all the lads down the pub, where they kept showing the race again, then we went back to my house. We were all pretty overcome and excited.

“The whole village turned out and it was a great celebration. I should think there were a lot of sore heads the next morning.”

David Elsworth at his Egerton House Stables in Newmarket
David Elsworth at his Egerton House Stables in Newmarket

Remembering how special those days were, Elsworth, who is still going strong and saddled a winner at Royal Ascot last season, smiled: “I used to say if I didn’t train Desert Orchid I would be fed up hearing his name!

“If I had been on the outside looking in I might have been fed up hearing his name, but he was a great horse. He wasn’t a poser, he was a doer.

“Dessie didn’t know he was popular, but when the questions were asked he usually delivered.

“On my tombstone it won’t be ‘David Elsworth, racehorse trainer’, it will probably have ‘David Elsworth trainer of – in big letters – Desert Orchid’ and I would be very honoured to have that.”

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