By: Ron Hale
The Lady is a Champ
The decade of 1971-1980 was highlighted by the performances of some of the most outstanding Thoroughbreds of the century: Secretariat, Forego, Ruffian, Seattle Slew, Affirmed and Spectacular Bid. At the moment that Spectacular Bid was paraded for the final time in 1980, no one could possibly have foreseen that the sport was looking at the last great superhorse of the millennium.
The penultimate decade of the 20th Century would produce some exciting races and some major, positive advancements in the sport (e.g. The Breeders' Cup), but the soundness of the American Thoroughbred, its ability to run faster than its predecessors and its capacity to run long distances all would suffered major downturns. Sadly, as the century comes to a close, the slide continues.
Through this period, however, one star shone the brightest. A filly named Personal Ensign arrived on the racing scene in 1986. Her three-year-career comprised only thirteen races, but during that time she stamped herself as one of the best distaffers to ever race in America. Whether she is deserving of the title "great" might be subject to debate, but there is little doubt that she was the best Thoroughbred of either sex to appear on the racing scene in the nearly 18 years since the 'Bid said farewell in 1980.
A dark bay daughter of Private Account out of the Hoist the Flag mare, Grecian Banner, Personal Ensign was bred in Kentucky by her owner, Ogden Phipps, in whose famous black silks and cherry cap she raced during her entire career. Her breeding lines show that she traced to War Admiral, Man o' War's greatest son, on both her sire and dam's side.
Personal Ensign was foaled and raised at Claiborne Farm in Lexington, KY. She began her career winning twice as a two-year-old, her maiden win coming by 13 lengths. While preparing for the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies (Gr I) in 1986, she broke her left hind leg in two places. Five screws were inserted to assist in healing and to keep the bone intact.
Miraculously, her career was not over. (Note: By the time Personal Ensign did retired, there were those who said her career had been carefully managed to avoid defeat. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Her career was such that it was because of the delicate nature of her injury and the potential for disaster at any time.)
Ogden Phipps' star returned to the races a year later, rattling off four consecutive wins against the best fillies in the land. Shug McGaughey, her trainer, and the Phippses felt the trip to Hollywood Park in California for the 1987 Breeders' Cup Distaff (Gr I) would be too demanding considering she had just returned to the races in September. Thus, the filly was retired for the season.
Personal Ensign would not miss the 1988 Breeders' Cup Distaff at Churchill Downs, the defining race of her marvelous career and one of the most unforgettable performances ever by a Thoroughbred.
The undefeated filly made her 1988 debut at Monmouth Park in Oceanport, NJ, winning the Molly Pitcher Stakes (Gr II). Running against males in her next start, the Grade I Whitney Stakes at Saratoga, Personal Ensign defeated the eventual Breeders' Cup Sprint (Gr I) winner, Gulch. Prior to shipping to Churchill for her long-awaited debut in the Breeders' Cup series, she repeated her prior year victory in the Grade I Beldame Stakes at Belmont Park.
The Phipps filly came to Churchill Downs with seven Grade I wins under her belt and 12 wins in 12 lifetime starts. She had a chance to become the first American Thoroughbred champion in 80 years to retire undefeated. (Hall of Fame member Colin was the last in 1907-1908.)
There were nine horses in the fifth running of the Breeders' Cup Distaff in 1988. Only three were given any chance of victory: Personal Ensign (2-5 on the morning line); Eugene Klein's Kentucky Derby heroine Winning Colors (3-to-1 entry with Classic Crown); and Arthur Hancock's Goodbye Halo (5-to-1).
Personal Ensign was 1-to-2 when the starter pressed the button. As expected, Winning Colors did what she liked best -- set the pace as she did successfully six months earlier at Churchill Downs in the most famous of all American races. When the race was over, Winning Color's trainer D. Wayne Lukas would say that his filly ran the best race of her career in the Distaff.
Loping along in front, Winning Colors was loving the sloppy track on that dark, damp, cold Louisville day. Personal Ensign, disliking the track, appeared out of the race. Her rider, Randy Romero, told the late historian Jim Bolus that Personal Ensign "wasn't handling the track that day -- she just couldn't get a hold of it."
As the field turned into the stretch, Winning Colors was skimming the rail far in front. The largest crowd to ever witness a Breeders' Cup began to search for the black-and-red silks of the undefeated filly. She looked hopelessly out of it as she came wide into the stretch. Romero got her to switch leads and she began her relentless pursuit of the frontrunner. Suddenly in mid-stretch, Goodbye Halo veered out from heavy whipping and Personal Ensign was forced to alter course.
By now, with only 110 yards to go, Personal Ensign was running out of room and time. As Perry Lefko wrote in "The Greatest Show on Turf" (DRF Press, 1996), "it would require an effort for the ages" for Personal Ensign to get up.
In a race reminiscent of the great Forego's unbelievable come-from-behind win under 137 pounds over Honest Pleasure 12 years earlier in the Marlboro Cup (Gr I), the undefeated filly was not about to suffer her lone loss. Digging down deep and finding the strength and courage that is the hallmark of the Thoroughbred, Personal Ensign used every inch of the 1,234-1/2 foot Churchill Downs' stretch to get up in the final jump.
Those of us who stood on the old wooden planks of Churchill Downs' third floor boxes will never forget that moment in time. Personally, it was one of the few times in all my years of following this sport that I would have to fight back tears of joy. I remember immediately walking down the few steps to the main center walkway and pacing up and down waiting for the photo sign to come down. I was certain she had won. That's not why I was pacing. I was pacing because I was hyperventilating. I had a lump in my throat the size of a golf ball. And I was trying to keep those around me from seeing the tears.
The long history of Thoroughbred racing in America is dotted here and there with those defining moments which ensure that the sport -- in whatever form -- will go on forever as long as there are people who remember. The finish of that 6th race at Churchill Downs on November 5, 1988 was one of those rare moments.
Postscript: Personal Ensign completed her perfect career with earnings of $1,679,880. She was voted the Eclipse Award as champion female of 1988, but lost the Horse of the Year vote to Alysheba. She may prove to be as great a broodmare as she was a racehorse. Her first foal -- Miner's Mark -- was a multiple stakes winner whose victories included the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup. A daughter -- My Flag -- was a multiple Grade I stakes winner whose victories included the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies (won in come-from-behind fashion on an off track).
Personal Ensign was enshrined in the Hall of Fame at the National Museum of Racing in Saratoga Springs, NY, in her first year of eligibility, 1993.
© 1998, Ron Hale