Personal Memories of Personal Ensign

On the same day Zenyatta seeks to run her unbeaten streak to 16, words arrives of the death of Personal Ensign, who retired undefeated in 13 starts following one of the greatest races of all time.

Those who jump up and down about Zenyatta becoming the first to beat males in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I) have every right to beat the drum loudly. It was an incredible performance. But there is something deeply emotional about the type of race that not only stirs your inner passion when you witness it live but leads you to become more convinced of its greatness as each year flips by on the calendar.

Perhaps we know greatness when we see it, and history affords us the perspective to truly understand it. Perhaps we get older and wiser; maybe it is that the memory bank gets fuller so the truly great performances mean even more.

I saw greatness in the 1988 Breeders’ Cup Distaff (gr. I), and over the years have come to appreciate it even more.

In fact when I watch the replay, obviously knowing the outcome, I still don’t think Randy Romero is going to pick Personal Ensign up and carry her to victory. She just can’t get there.

I can’t imagine there has ever been a more emotional and satisfying win for trainer Shug McGaughey, who counts many such moments in his career. Similarly, I can’t imagine there has even been a more gut-wrenching loss for trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who like all trainers, has been on both ends of photo finishes.

Ogden Phipps homebred Personal Ensign was hopelessly beaten at the top of the stretch by Kentucky Derby (gr. I) winner Winning Colors on the muddy Churchill Downs surface Nov. 5, 1988, but her will to win was simply too great.

Of the dozen horses to run second to Personal Ensign (Winning Colors did so twice), two were champions and eight were grade I winners of a combined 19 grade I races during their careers (Personal Ensign won eight grade I races). Of the four to run second to her that failed to win a grade I race, one was a Canadian champion, two were grade III winners, and the other twice finished second in grade I races.

Amazingly, when few top runners also go on to become top producers—another Breeders’ Cup champion who fits the bill is Miesque—Personal Ensign produced three grade I winners including Breeders’ Cup winner My Flag, who in turn produced Breeders’ Cup winner Storm Flag Flying.

We recall the epic lunge of Personal Ensign (by Private Account) beating Winning Colors so vividly we forget poor ol’ Goodbye Halo, who was only a half-length back of those two. Goodbye Halo only won seven grade I races in her career including that year’s Kentucky Oaks, CCA Oaks, and Mother Goose Stakes.

Any list of the greatest Breeders’ Cup performances begins with Personal Ensign. As more time marches on, perhaps we will think differently. But not today.

(Want a hunch bet for April 10: Personal Ensign is the third dam of Toyota Blue Grass (gr. I) entrant Interactif.)

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