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.

20 Comments

Leave a Comment:

Cgriff

Beautifully remembered, beautifully written.  A wonderful tribute to the legendary mare.

13 Apr 2010 3:07 PM
DBH

One of the best called races as well....beautiful job !

13 Apr 2010 4:12 PM
Louise Teater

DITTO

13 Apr 2010 5:06 PM
Wee

Wonderful story and a great tribute to a great racehorse.  It was a great race and I never tire of seeing her come from behind to get to the wire.

13 Apr 2010 5:57 PM
Karen2

Personal Ensign: The heart of a champion. Thanks for this fitting tribute. The racing God's have called home another beautiful soul. RIP pretty girl.

13 Apr 2010 9:33 PM
Ida Lee

What a race!! It's right up there with the best ever... RIP Beautiful Girl.

13 Apr 2010 10:08 PM
steve bertrando

i remember that race well,let's hope we get to see something like that again with rachel and zenyatta.my favorite race was dr. fager winning the united nations,i begged my dad to take me.when they came to the top of the turn dr. fager lost the lead then fought back to win his only race on turf. a memory like yesterday.  

14 Apr 2010 7:49 AM
Heidi

Beautiful tribute to the great mare. She was before my time (I started watching in 1991) but I will never forget the first time I saw a video of her courageous stretch run in the '88 Distaff. Since that day, that race has been on my list of all-time greats.

As a granddaughter of Damascus, I cay lay claim to her in a very, very small way...my own beloved off-track mare is also a granddaughter of Damascus.

Rest in peace, Personal Ensign.

14 Apr 2010 11:28 AM
Donna S.

Race mare of the Century.

14 Apr 2010 12:06 PM
MonicaV

I was lucky to have been there that cold, rainy day on November 5 in '88.  Everyone was anticipating that race and it was the most thrilling stretch run I have ever seen.  The crowd was so loud and on their feet cheering and yelling.  I will never forget it and I mourn Personal Ensign's passing as I do all of them.  She was in a class of her own.

14 Apr 2010 3:18 PM
Linda in Texas

Eric, reading your article was like watching the race all over again. What a wonderful remembrance you described so well. If fortitude were measured, she had it all sewed up! And MonicaV how lucky for you to have witnessed her race in person and win to boot!  

14 Apr 2010 5:37 PM
Mike Relva

I'm sad regarding PE passing. I've made several requests in the past couple years to visit her,but was turned down.

14 Apr 2010 7:06 PM
Kim C.

I was there that day and couldn't believe my eyes. She was awesome!!  RIP beautiful girl !

14 Apr 2010 10:45 PM
Jim P

God blessed Personal Ensign and through her we were blessed.

I love the fiestiness of her personality; not accepting treats, not wanting to be touched, difficult to shoe and halter, not wanting to share her babies.

There have been so many great races; Eric touched on a few. I'll add Rags to Riches in the Belmont, Zarkava's Arc, and Yeats' 4th Gold Cup.

15 Apr 2010 2:32 AM
Lupe Aranda

Awesome retelling of a most memorable race and truly champion race horse!  Thank you so much for honoring her passing in such a beautiful remembrance!

-A horse lover in Texas

15 Apr 2010 9:00 AM
kevin

I can say that I watched the race and it is the best race I have ever watched.That day there was no doubtshe was not going to be beaten .

15 Apr 2010 10:56 AM
Nancy

Eric - Thank you for sharing your memories with us, I could feel your exhilariation of the race as I read it.  Thank God for films, so those of us who did not witness her fighting spirit could view it now.  She was great!  I have printed this piece out and will place it in my copy of "Thoroughbred Champions Top 100 RaceHorses of the 20th Century".

16 Apr 2010 10:11 AM
Mark

Nice! That race was great. To people who say running in slope doesn't matter, it does. Ask Randy Romero. He said she was having a hard time but had enough heart to win.

16 Apr 2010 8:50 PM
Rhonda

What spine-tingling memories Personal Ensign gave us all! Many forget that she ran after suffering a very bad injury.

To me, she was the female John Henry. All toughness, competitiveness and desire. She was truly the 'heart' in the expression "Heart of a Champion".

As with all horses, she was a regal creature. Knew she was a champion and showed it on the track and in the breeding shed.

She should have a statue somewhere to commemorate her greatness.

Rest In Peace Personal Ensign.

17 Apr 2010 11:55 AM
Brenda

Thank You So Much for writing such a wonderful article. It brought tears to my eyes....I love this mare. She over came so much. She is simply Amazing!!

17 Apr 2010 5:23 PM

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