The long queue waiting to be photographed with the superstar resembled the line snaking around Harrods for the January sales. Finally, a little girl’s patience was rewarded as she stepped forward to share the spotlight, and while touching her grey-haired hero, she asked in awestruck tones where he was from.
The reply from Desert Orchid’s travelling head lad, Jim Stone, perfectly suited the moment. “I think,” he said softly, “that he came from heaven.”
Many grown-ups would, like the little girl, take the answer seriously. Desert Orchid is an extraordinary, charismatic equine who has become official horse of a lifetime to the 1,000 members of the Desert Orchid Fan Club.
Some cancer and leukaemia sufferers have stroked him, and confessed that his courage was their inspiration to keep fighting their illnesses. He has humbled others, such as part-owner James Burridge, a 75-year-old solicitor who, on seeing the “Three Kings” Christmas card portraying Dessie alongside Arkle and Red Rum, wondered: “Is he really good enough to be in their company?”
The grey has frightened the able-bodied he has cornered in his stable, delighted the disabled with whom he is so gentle, while exasperating others, such as his groom Gen Sentence, who lavishes love on him and then finds she is being rushed to hospital to have the finger Dessie has bitten off sewn back on.
In his 10-year career, the “Grey One” ran an estimated 180 miles, leaped more than 1,000 fences and won 34 races, including the Cheltenham Gold Cup, a record four King George VI chases, the Irish Grand National and the Whitbread Gold Cup.
The 16.2hh son of Grey Mirage was bred by Midge’s former husband James, out of his hard-pulling hunter, Flower Child.
“I have known Dessie since he was born and he is part of my family. Not being around him is like losing a child.”
She recalls Dessie as an adorable foal, growing into an odd-looking yearling with a black mane and tail, and white patches. He became a gawky two-year-old “who was a pig to bring in from the field”.
Midge, a keen rider, did much of Dessie’s roadwork before he first went into training and found him an easy ride before the professionals took over.
Dessie was the leading horse of the 1980s, but a year after his retirement, he was given only a 10 per cent chance of survival following an attack of colic. He recovered and spent much of his retirement attending charity events before eventually passing away in 2006, aged 27.
“I really love him,” says Midge. “People love horses if they keep winning and they particularly love horses when they keep winning and they are grey.
“But Dessie has an amazing effect on everyone he meets. He has presence and charisma and, like Mohammed Ali, believes he is the greatest. He is the biggest part of my life. In fact,” she says, “he completely changed my life.”
First published in Horse & Hound in 1997