11/13/2006 1:00AM

Desert Orchid dies at 27

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Desert Orchid, the much-loved winner of the 1989 Cheltenham Gold Cup, died peacefully at age 27 at Egerton Stud Stables in Newmarket, England, on Monday morning.

Probably the most popular British racehorse of the last quarter-century, "Dessie," as he was known to his legions of fans, was trained throughout his career by David Elsworth. Owned by Richard Burridge, the gray gelding also won the prestigious three-mile King George VI Chase at Kempton Park twice, the 3 5/8-mile Whitbread Handicap Gold Cup Chase as the highweight at Sandown Park, along with a 3 1/2-mile Irish Grand National Chase at Fairyhouse.

But it was his March 16, 1989, heroics in the Cheltenham Gold Cup that earned him mythic status in a British jumping world that expected the most from him that day and got it. With rain and snow having turned Cheltenham's grueling 3 1/4-mile steeplechase course into a quagmire, Desert Orchid, a lover of good ground, overcame the brutal conditions to pull off a 1 1/2-length victory over Yahoo, setting off celebrations that lasted for three days in England.

Elsworth said that Desert Orchid, who had been ill for a week, suffered no stress in his last days.

Oliver Sherwood, the man who rode "Dessie" to his Gold Cup triumph, eulogized the charismatic chaser: "To me he was a great friend and was just the greatest horse you could ever wish to ride in a race."