The flamboyant grey Desert Orchid is best remembered for his career as a steeplechaser, during which he won the Cheltenham Gold Cup, in 1989, and the King George VI Chase four times, in 1986, 1988, 1989 and 1990. However, ‘Dessie’ also enjoyed a brilliant hurdling career and first caught public attention with his meteoric rise through the ranks in his novice season over the small obstacles in 1983/84.
In that season, Desert Orchid won six of his eight starts, including the Grade One Tolworth Hurdle at Sandown in January and the Grade Two Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton in February. He made his debut at the Cheltenham Festival in the Champion Hurdle, for which, despite still being a novice, he was sent at just 7/1; he failed to make much of an impact, though, fading from the second-last flight of hurdles to finish down the field behind Dawn Run.
The 1984/85 season was more of a struggle for Desert Orchid and he won just once, in the Listed Oteley Hurdle, now the Contenders Hurdle, at Sandown in January. Nevertheless, he took his place in Champion Hurdle once again but, having chased the frenetic pace set by Northern Trial, weakened quickly as the field approached the top of the hill and was pulled up before three out in the race eventually won by See You Then. So, while Desert Orchid did twice contest the Champion Hurdle, he never did win it.
The simple answer is no, he did not. Martin Pipe, from whom the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival takes its name, was by far the most successful trainer in the history of National Hunt racing. Pipe retired, due ill health, at the age of 60 in April, 2006, but by the end of his career had saddled 4,180 winners and won the National Hunt Trainers’ Championship fifteen times, including ten years running between 1996 and 2005.
Pipe saddled a total of 34 winners at the Cheltenham Festival but, while he won the Champion Hurdle twice, with Granville Again in 1993 and Make A Stand in 1997, the closest he came to winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup was with Rushing Wild, ridden by Richard Dunwoody, who finished a 2-length second to Jodami in 1993. His other runners that year, Run For Free, ridden by Mark Perrett, and Chatham, ridden by Peter Scudamore, finished eighth and eleventh, respectively.
Michael William Dickinson took over the licence at Poplar House, Dunkeswick, near Harewood, West Yorkshire from his father, Tony, in 1980 and wasted little time in revolutionising National Hunt racing. In three of the four seasons that Dickinson Jnr. held a licence – 1981/82, 1982/83 and 1983/84 – he was Champion Trainer; on the first two occasions, he sent out 84 winners and 120 winners, at a strike rate of 45% and 46%, respectively, from a yard with just 55 stables.
Michael Dickinson first won the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 1982, when he saddled Silver Buck to beat stable companion Bregawn by two lengths, for a notable 1-2 in the ‘Blue Riband’. However, in 1983, Dickinson saddled Bregawn and Captain John – who had already filled the first two places in the Hennessy Gold Cup the previous November – to finish first and second in the Cheltenham Gold Cup and, remarkably, Wayward Lad, Silver Buck and Ashley House to fill the next three places, for a record-breaking 1-2-3-4-5 for the yard. So, strictly speaking, Michael Dickinson won the Cheltenham Gold Cup just twice, but his so-called ‘Famous Five’, will always be remembered as one of the greatest training feats of all time.
The inaugural Cheltenham Festival was staged, as a two-day affair, in 1911, under the auspices of W.A. Baring Bingham, who owned the land at Prestbury Park, and Frederick Cathcart, Clerk of the Course at Cheltenham Racecourse. Cathcart would go on to create the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 1924 and the Champion Hurdle in 1927, but even before the addition of those two races, in 1923, the Cheltenham Festival had been extended to a three-day meeting. Various races came and went over the years, but the Festival remained a three-day meeting until 2005, when it was extended to four days, with the addition of several new races, including the Ryanair Chase and the Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase.
The Cheltenham Festival continues to evolve and, nowadays, consists of 28 races, including twelve at Grade One level. One of the four main ‘championship’ races – namely the Champion Hurdle, Queen Mother Champion Chase, Stayers’ Hurdle and Cheltenham Gold Cup – is the feature race on each of the four days and is complemented by two, or three, other Grade One races each day, plus a selection of lesser Graded races, Listed races and competitive handicaps.