What is it about some horses that turns them into national treasures? Talent helps but does not necessarily win over a nation. L'Escargot won the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 1970 and 1971 plus the Grand National in 1975, yet never came close to rivalling Desert Orchid in our affections. With his dashing good looks, "Dessie" possessed unrivalled star appeal; every time he soared over an open ditch our hearts leapt with him. When he died in 2006, it was like losing an old friend.
It is 20 years now since he ploughed up the hill to Gold Cup glory, his handsome grey coat caked in mud, to beat the gallant Yahoo, a duel which was voted the Greatest Race of All Time in a Racing Post poll ahead of Red Rum's first Grand National victory over Crisp in 1973, but the image has never faded. At the height of his popularity, a Christmas card sent from Australia arrived at trainer David Elsworth's Wiltshire yard bearing the address: Desert Orchid, Somewhere in England - and it is a curiosity that he is best remembered for his solitary Gold Cup win at the Cheltenham Festival rather than his four King George VI Chase victories at Kempton.
But as Elsworth said of his four-legged superstar, who won 34 races from 71 outings: "He was a great ambassador for racing. His enthusiasm, his style of running, and his colour, all combined to make him a great public favourite." Twelve months after his appearance in that Greatest Race, Dessie, the favourite to retain his crown, returned to Cheltenham on Gold Cup day 1990. The racing correspondent of one British daily newspaper saw the outcome thus: "Thoughts of defeat for any reason other than a freak mishap cannot be seriously entertained.
That prediction may end up in the book of famous last words, but any analysis of the race must logically be confined not so much to whether Desert Orchid can capture a second Gold Cup but by how far he will win it and who will be second." Among the "no hopers" competing for that second place was the outsider Norton's Coin who, according to the official Cheltenham race card, was: "...more a candidate for last than first".
To be fair to that "expert" view, Norton's Coin was one of only three horses trained by Sirrell Griffiths on his Carmarthenshire dairy farm. He had won four minor races and been entered in National Hunt's most elite field "for a bit of a lark". But down in the paddock, the former jockey turned BBC racing commentator, Richard Pitman, who had detected something everyone else had missed, told viewers: "I don't think Desert Orchid is going to win today - and don't rule out Norton's Coin..."
After milking his cows, Griffiths, Norton Coin's owner and breeder, collected his chestnut gelding, whose unheralded sire and dam had cost the joint sum of £1,160 (Dh6,000), from the yard he shared with hens and set off in hope rather than expectation. By the third-last, Griffiths had begun to hope for the impossible; the leader, Ten Of Spades, flagged, leaving Desert Orchid in front closely pursued by Toby Tobias and - quite unexpectedly - Norton's Coin.
As Dessie faded, Graham McCourt took Norton's Coin to the front 50 yards from the line for an outrageous three-quarters of a length victory over Toby Tobias with the beaten champion another four lengths away in third. Fortunes will be made, reputations enhanced, another legend might even be launched during the forthcoming four days of the Cheltenham Festival, culminating in the Gold Cup on Friday, but Dessie's role as the nation's sweetheart will remain unchallenged.