It's Personal - By Eric Mitchell

(Originally published in the April 17, 2010 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.)   

Every horse racing fan has their race—a singular, captivating event that strikes at the heart and soul as it unfolds, with an emotional connection that continues to resonate clearly many years—even decades—later.

My race is Personal Ensign’s 1988 Breeders’ Cup Distaff (gr. I).

The power of that race came flooding back April 9 with the news that the great champion had died at age 26.

In 1988 I was in my first year transitioning from farm manager at Dove Creek Farm to journalist at the Ocala Star-Banner newspaper in Central Florida. The Breeders’ Cup World Championships was also still relatively new, having run its inaugural races only four years earlier. The paper, at the time, didn’t have the Breeders’ Cup in its budget as a must-attend event, and, anyway, I didn’t have any seniority as a novice general-assignment reporter to warrant sending me to Churchill Downs. So my job Nov. 5 was to cover the local story by hanging out with Marion County horsemen at a Breeders’ Cup party in a Holiday Inn conference room and get comments for the wrap-up done by the paper’s Turf writer.

The Distaff was the buzz race of the day; a true clash of titans. Personal Ensign entered the race undefeated in 12 starts with nine of those victories in graded stakes, seven of them grade Is. She had already faced Winning Colors in the Maskette Stakes (gr. I) Sept. 10 and won by three-quarters of a length. Winning Colors had won the Santa Anita Oaks (gr. I) by eight lengths, the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) by 7½ lengths, and wired the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) field to win by a neck over Forty Niner.

So when the horses entered the gate, the chatter in the room became muted and the buffet table cleared. The atmosphere was heavy with eagerness and anticipation. Winning Colors’ trainer D. Wayne Lukas had already won the first two championship races for the day — the Sprint (gr. I) with Gulch and the Juvenile Fillies (gr. I) with Open Mind. People clustered around the large television screens, muttering predictions.

“Winning Colors, she’s a monster, and she’s beaten the boys twice. She’ll jump out in front and never look back.”

“Yeah, but Personal Ensign’s beaten the boys, too, and she’s already beaten Winning Colors.”

The gates sprung and within a few jumps, Winning Colors took a commanding lead. How odd it is to have seen this race replayed over and over and upon watching it each time still feel in that first mile of the race Winning Colors is going to run away with it. She ran with such confidence and power. As the field reached the end of the backstretch, the atmosphere in the room shifted toward a resignation that this was Winning Colors’ day. Personal Ensign was still five lengths from the leader exiting the turn, and no one seemed to be making much of a move.

Then Personal Ensign comes off the rail and starts gaining ground. For me, the anticipation turned to anxiety. This remarkable mare is going to give it her all in the stretch, exert every ounce of energy chasing down the gray monster only to have her record spoiled at the wire. It will be a remarkable performance and yet so heartbreaking.

But Personal Ensign keeps driving and driving. The gap is closing and by the sixteenth pole the anticipation that draped all of us at the start has become a clamorous sea of cheering and shouting. You can’t hear the televisions anymore. Everyone in the room has tunnel-vision and is measuring like supercomputers every yard of the shrinking gap between the red cap and the yellow cap. Winning Colors’ fans scream for her to hold on. Personal Ensign fans will the great mare forward.

They hit the wire and the clamor falls to the floor, leaving only murmurs in the air.

Did Personal Ensign get there? She seemed to, but no one was sure.

Then the NBC cameras showed the photo finish with Personal Ensign’s nose on the wire, inches ahead of Winning Colors. The room erupted again. She did it.

My heart was pounding. The relief and elation were intoxicating.

I’ve been fortunate to see many of the great races such as Sunday Silence and Easy Goer’s 1989 Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I), Tiznow’s repeat victory in the 2001 Classic, and Afleet Alex’s amazing 2005 Preakness Stakes (gr. I). But nothing sticks with me like that sight of Personal Ensign fighting down the stretch; a champion and a one-in-a-million performance I shall never forget. 

Eric Mitchell is the editorial director of Blood-Horse Publication.

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