'I didn't ever feel Dessie would win at Cheltenham - let alone in a Gold Cup'
Graham Dench recalls the day 30 years ago when the great grey Desert Orchid made it sixth time lucky at The Festival
Cheltenham was never really Desert Orchid's track, and that no doubt made his victory in the Gold Cup 30 years ago all the sweeter.
Desert Orchid had been beaten at The Festival five years running - in two Champion Hurdles, an Arkle and two Queen Mother Champion Chases - and a clear pattern had emerged.
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Anyone could see the tracks at which he excelled were right-handed, like Sandown, where he had won at either extreme in a Tingle Creek and a Whitbread; Kempton, where he had already won two of his four King Georges; and Ascot, where eight wins included that famous Victor Chandler defeat of Panto Prince.
With Pearlyman, his nemesis twice, absent through injury in 1989, many would have found the Champion Chase a hard option to resist, but David Elsworth had Barnbrook Again for that and in any case had made his preference for the Gold Cup clear even before the King George when he said: "Everyone is dying to see Desert Orchid in the Gold Cup, myself and the owners included."
Come the big day Desert Orchid was on a roll, with wins at Wincanton, Sandown (two), Ascot and in the King George already under his belt, but to everyone's horror overnight snow put racing in the balance.
Elsworth recalls: "We had been back to Whitsbury after Barnbrook Again won the Queen Mother and I think the first I knew about an inspection was when I found myself alongside (owner) Jeff Smith in traffic outside Cirencester.
"I wasn't too worried about Desert Orchid handling the conditions as he was a good mover and could cope with anything, but I was worried the meeting might not take place at all and that he had missed his chance, especially as this Gold Cup was maybe a bit weaker than most."
To widespread relief the track passed a midday inspection and, while it was a foul day and the going was now heavy, Desert Orchid went to post the 5/2 favourite in a field that included previous winners Charter Party and The Thinker, as well as Carvill's Hill, who was still trained in Ireland, and the classy Fulke Walwyn novice Ten Plus.
We will never know whether Desert Orchid would have beaten Ten Plus, whose fatal fall three fences out inevitably cast a shadow over an otherwise momentous occasion, but Elsworth is inclined to think he would have done.
He says: "I can't be sure, and Ten Plus was certainly making life tough for us, but if you look at the video Desert Orchid had moved back up to Ten Plus, having dropped three or four lengths behind, and they were in the air together.
"We still had Yahoo to contend with, but, without wishing to cast aspersions, he perhaps wasn't really a Gold Cup horse."
Simon Sherwood, at that stage unbeaten on Desert Orchid, takes up the story.
He says: "Yahoo and Tom Morgan came up our inner full of running and I couldn't see us beating him, but then between the last two fences Dessie seemed to change his legs and find a little bit of speed.
"Neither of us took the last well, but Dessie was back in with a chance and I remember thinking 'right, this is once in a lifetime mate' and just going for it."
Desert Orchid was running on sheer guts, but when he got to Yahoo halfway up the run-in his rival had no answer. The winning margin was a length-and-a-half, and Sherwood, who retired at the end of that season, had ticked a massive box.
The Cheltenham crowd has always known how to welcome their heroes, and the pair returned to a reception rivalling that accorded Dawn Run and Jonjo O'Neill.
Elsworth had won the Grand National the previous year with Rhyme 'n' Reason, but this was even bigger.
He says: "I didn't ever feel that Desert Orchid would win at Cheltenham, let alone in a Gold Cup, but he was in the form of his life that year and whatever hang-ups he had about the track he was able to overcome them. This was his year."
He adds: "In my first year in racing (1955) the Gold Cup was won by Gay Donald, who was trained close to Whitsbury. Everyone wants to win the Gold Cup, because it's the Blue Riband of jumping. It was then, and it still is now.
"In my opinion it has always been the biggest event in the jumping calendar."