Photo: Breeders' Cup
“The Derby winner is loose on the lead!”
It’s hard to believe that 24 years have passed since one of the most memorable Breeders’ Cups was run under the famed twin spires of Churchill Downs. In its fifth year of existence, the World Championships came to Kentucky for the first time, and for the more than seventy thousand fans in attendance, it was a bone-chilling and rain-drenched day. For their trouble, they were also treated to a handful of performances that will never be forgotten. Alysheba was America’s horse, and when the popular son of Alydar charged down the middle of the Churchill Down stretch in virtual darkness to power past Seeking the Gold, he assured himself not only the Horse of the Year title and a place in racing’s Hall of Fame, but also a permanent spot in millions of fans’ hearts. Earlier in the day, the great French filly Miesque, had become the first horse to win two Breeders’ Cup races, with an overpowering win against males in the Breeders’ Cup Mile under rider Freddy Head, and trainer D. Wayne Lukas became the first trainer to win three Breeders’ Cup races on a single card, including defeating the supposedly invincible juvenile, Easy Goer, with his colt Is It True. As many stories as there were on this day, November 5, 1988, there was one that trumped them all. Personal Ensign’s remarkable will and refusal to lose had never been tested like this before, but on this day she would have the opportunity to lay it all on the line and show just what kind of champion she was, because … the Derby winner was loose on the lead!
When the field of nine entered the starting gate for the 1988 Breeders’ Cup Distaff, yes it was called the Distaff back then, all eyes were on the regally bred, four-year-old daughter of Private Account. As well they should have been. In twelve lifetime starts there had been need for a photo finish only once in her perfect career and that had been way back in her second lifetime start when she prevailed in a long drive over Collins by a head in the Grade 1 Frizette. An Ogden Phipps homebred, Personal Ensign was foaled and raised at Claiborne Farm, and exuded her pedigree and class every time she stepped on to the track for trainer, Shug McGaughey. Not even a serious injury preparing for the BC Juvenile Fillies of 1986 had been able to derail her from dominating her competition in each successive race. Completely healthy in 1988, she had reeled off six consecutive wins already that season including a win against males in the Grade 1 Whitney. Her closest race in the previous two seasons had come when she had to run down Winning Colors in the one-mile Maskette two races back. Personal Ensign had done it rather easily, but the younger filly had shown a toughness that would foreshadow what was to come.
Winning Colors had been the toast of the nation after holding off Forty Niner to win the Kentucky Derby. That historic win had come on the heels of smashing victories in the Santa Anita Oaks and Derby. But a good performance when third in the Preakness was followed by a forty plus length drubbing at the hands of Risen Star in the Belmont. A rest followed, and she returned with the sharp effort in the Maskette. A fifteen length loss in the Spinster followed and left many wondering if she still had it, so when the bettors had their say in the Distaff, it was no surprise that Personal Ensign and her regular rider, Randy Romero, were made an overwhelming 1-2 favorite, over the 4-1 Winning Colors, while the very good three-year-old filly, and Kentucky Oaks winner, Goodbye Halo was 5-1.
Running on a surface made up of equal parts Kentucky dirt and wet stuff from above, Winning Colors, with her familiar white bridle, jumped right out to the front and skipped quickly to a clear lead, under Gary Stevens. Personal Ensign, meanwhile came out okay, but was mired in the wet going between and behind a bunch of fillies. She looked very much like the meat of an uncomfortable and sloppy sandwich. The combination of both beginnings created a very real recipe for an upset.
“The Derby winner is loose on the lead!” The words echoed in my ears, as the great Phipps filly spun her wheels on the messy Churchill Downs’ dirt course. Everything was on the line for Personal Ensign that damp afternoon. A win would ensure her place among the all-time greats of racing history, as she would become the first major American horse to go undefeated since the legendary Colin, some eighty years before. A loss would drop her legacy down a notch, still a special horse, but she would no longer be in possession of the immortality of a perfect record.
“The Derby winner is loose on the lead!” I kept hearing those words, mainly because my partner, that day, my father, kept saying them playfully after announcer Tom Durkin had exclaimed them early in the race. At the eighth pole, it still appeared hopeless as we stared at the TV monitors at the Meadowlands, our chosen place to watch and wager on the Breeders’ Cup on that day. Four lengths behind Winning Colors, who was running her best race since winning the Derby six months earlier, her task appeared too great.
One more time I heard a, “The Derby winner is loose on the lead!” Personal Ensign was no ordinary horse, however. With dogged determination she kicked into another gear. She was the only one who did not know how to lose. Romero kept asking for more and the great filly kept giving more. She ignored the nasty weather and track conditions and reeled in the Derby winner, who should never have been caught that day. In the most thrilling finish in the history of the Breeders‘ Cup, Personal Ensign stuck her nose in front of Winning Colors in the final stride. It was a case of a true champion acting like only a true champion could. She retired perfect. Immortality does not come easy, it has to be earned.