Head to Head: Handicapping the Personal Ensign Stakes

Head to Head: Handicapping the Personal Ensign Stakes
Photo: NYRA

The Grade 1, $600,000 Personal Ensign Stakes is named in honor of the classy champion Personal Ensign, who retired undefeated in 13 career starts. Her victory in the 1988 Breeders’ Cup Distaff is considered one of the most nail-biting finishes in the Distaff’s 36-year history.

This year, a field of nine elite fillies and mares line up in the 1 1/8-mile event. The Personal Ensign is carded as race 10 on the Travers undercard, with a 4:47 p.m. EDT post time. There’s a 24 percent chance of rain, so we are handicapping for a fast track.

Laurie Ross of Pedigree Power and Ashley Tamulonis of Coast To Coast hope to upset the favorite but see the race differently.



1. Dunbar Road (20-1)

Trained by Chad Brown, Dunbar Road owns the highest speed figure at the Personal Ensign distance in the field, but that was by virtue of closing for third behind Monomoy Girl in last year's Breeders' Cup Distaff (G1) rather than by her own merit. This year she has yet to hit the board against similar talent. Pass.


Sadly, the 5-year-old Dunbar Road has lost a step this year, placing fifth in both starts with no real excuse. Her last victory was July 2020, and although she’s an accomplished mare, perhaps it’s time for lesser company or a well-earned retirement. Pass.


2. As Time Goes By (6-1)

Aside from when she faced Swiss Skydiver in the Beholder Mile (G1) and last out in the Clement L. Hirsch (G1) when she stumbled at the start, As Time Goes By has dominated the West Coast this year under the tutelage of Bob Baffert. She faces a tough group here but is certainly capable of hitting the board. Certainly use in your exotics.

In her first start off the layoff, As Time Goes By threw a clunker in the Clement L. Hirsch (G1). Despite bobbling slightly at the start, she recovered fairly quickly and didn’t lose much ground. After that, the Baffert trainee was never in contention and was flatter than a bad joke. Earlier this year, As Time Goes By faced Swiss Skydiver in the Beholder Mile (G1). Although Swiss Skydiver won by 2 3/4 lengths, she had an easier ground-saving trip while As Time Goes By was caught five-wide around the turn. Baffert and jockey Mike Smith's recent wins together include the 2018 edition of the Personal Ensign.


3. BONNY SOUTH (10-1)

After running second to Letruska in the Ogden Phipps (G1), Bonny South was sent off as the odds-on favorite in the Delaware Handicap (G2). Though she had previously run second at 1 1/4 miles in the Alabama (G1), beaten by Swiss Skydiver, she failed to menace at Delaware Park, checking in a disappointing fifth. The cutback in distance should suit her, but the big question is whether she is classy enough to run by Letruska and Swiss Skydiver.


Bonny South regressed to fifth place in her last start after previously earning a 101 Brisnet Speed Rating when placing second to Letruska in the Ogden Phipps (G1). Munning’s daughter has placed at nine and 10 furlongs, but her best distance is 1 1/16 miles. The Brad Cox trainee will make her move from off the pace and is worth an exotics look.


4. Swiss Skydiver (7-2)

Champion Swiss Skydiver returns to her division after facing a short but loaded field of males in the Whitney (G1) last out, in which she finished fourth of five. Prior to that start, she defeated As Time Goes By in the Beholder Mile (G1) but was third behind Letruska and Monomoy Girl in the Apple Blossom (G1). The Daredevil filly has had quite a 2021 in that she has had several training interruptions. With a race under her girth three weeks ago, we should see the Swiss Skydiver we all know and love.


Swiss Skydiver returns to the distaff division after chasing Knicks Go in the Whitney. The Ken McPeek trainee won last year’s Alabama (G1) here, but interestingly, she is winless at nine furlongs in four starts. I know she is Ashley’s sweetheart, but I will tab her for an exotics position.

5. Royal Flag (10-1)

While Royal Flag appreciates the Saratoga track, I do not think that will be enough to help her against this field. Letruska defeated her here last year in the Shuvee (G3) and has only continued to improve. However, Royal Flag is no slouch by any means. She has never finished off the board in 10 career starts, but she has never faced this caliber of talent. Sorry, Chad Brown, but this is an ambitious placing, and I think Royal Flag will finish out of the trifecta for the first time ever here.



Royal Flag closed within a length of Letruska in last year’s Shuvee (G3) here at 1 1/8 miles, and Royal Flag won this year’s edition of the Shuvee in her last start. The Chad Brown trainee has not finished out of the money in 10 lifetime starts, and she will be flying late. I would not be surprised to see her pull the upset.  



6. Letruska (6-5)

Letruska has quickly become the darling of the distaff division in 2021. In 20 career starts, she has finished first 15 times, but it is only this year that she has really made the racing world sit up and take notice. Although Shedaresthedevil got the better of her in the Azeri Stakes (G2), Letruska defeated two champions when she took the Apple Blossom (G1). Irad Ortiz Jr. is going to take her straight to the front and dare the field to either keep up with her or try to run her down in the stretch. Good luck to them, though this is the "graveyard of champions" for a reason.


What is left to say about Letruska? She has won five of her last six starts and her sole loss was to Shedaresthedevil by a head in the Azeri (G2) in March, the only time she did not have the early lead. Win contender.


7. Miss Marissa (20-1)

Although Miss Marissa has the highest last race speed rating, a 104 while besting Bonny South in the Delaware Handicap (G2), she has definitely been thrown to the wolves here. She does like Saratoga, but as I said with Royal Flag, that likely will not be enough here. She is the most likely to go with Letruska early, but that will end up being a suicide mission. Pass.


As Ashley said, Miss Marissa led the entire way in the Delaware Handicap (G2) in her last start and earned a career-best 104 figure, a 12-point jump from her previous figure. That spells regression in my book. The multiple Grade 2 winner does her best work on the lead or closely pressing the pace. It will be interesting to see if she tries to eyeball Letruska. It is her best chance of hitting the board. Pass.


8.  Harvey's Lil Goil (8-1)

In what I find to be an intriguing move, Bill Mott is sending turf runner Harvey's Lil Goil out against the big girls on the dirt. It seems strange, but she did run third behind Swiss Skydiver and Bonny South on this track last year in the Alabama (G1). So it is possible that she can do it again, but she will need to bring her A++ dirt game.


Harvey's Lil Goil switches back to dirt in hopes of improving her performance. The last time the Mott trainee made the turf-to-dirt switch, she finished third in the Alabama (G1) behind Swiss Skydiver and Bonny South and earned a career-best speed figure. Even more intriguing, Saratoga’s leading rider Luis Saez will be in the saddle. Saez is winning dirt routes at a 36-percent clip this meet. However, even with her A++ game, I do not see her doing any better than a lower exotics position.


9. Graceful Princess (15-1)

With her breeding, we all expected, or at least hoped, Graceful Princess would be a star on the track. Unfortunately, breeding does not always indicate talent. Conversely, Graceful Princess is having a pretty decent 2021. In her season debut, she finished third in the Doubledogdare (G3) behind Bonny South and Royal Flag and scored her first graded-stakes win last out in the Molly Pitcher (G3). With that said, I do not think that she is ready for this level of competition.


It is hard to believe that the dynamic duo of Todd Pletcher and John Velazquez are 15-1 in a Grade 1 race at Saratoga. That shows just how deep the Personal Ensign field is. Graceful Princess won the Molly Pitcher (G3) in her last start, earning the Personal Ensign’s highest late pace figure of 112 and a career-best figure of 98. That was her first victory since last April. I smell regression. Pass.


Final Thoughts

Ashley:  This is a deep, talented field. Letruska obviously is the heavy favorite here, and it will be a matter of the others either going with her early or trying to run her down late. No one in this field has ever finished in front of her, but there are no guarantees since we're talking about Saratoga. Swiss Skydiver holds a special place in my heart, as I am sure I have said before. After facing the boys last out and knowing that she thrives on a solid racing schedule, I am going for the "upset" with my heart horse.

Laurie: The “graveyard of favorites” holds true in the Personal Ensign Stakes. Favorites have won only four of the last 11 editions. Ten of the last 11 winners won or placed in their previous start, and no particular running style is prominent.

If Letruska gets another uncontested lead, she will open up like she usually does. But if Daniel Centeno gets brave and sends Miss Marissa to play with Letruska in hopes of hanging on for a minor award, it could soften up Letruska.

I am anticipating this scenario because picking the favorite, especially in a Saratoga stakes, is boring.




#4 Swiss Skydiver (7-2)

#5 Royal Flag (10-1)

#6 Letruska (6-5)

#6 Letruska (6-5)

#3 Bonny South (10-1)

#4 Swiss Skydiver (7-2)

#2 As Time Goes By (6-1)

#3 Bonny South (10-1)

Meet Laurie Ross

 HRN Pedigree Analyst 


 Published Author

 Pedigree Research/Consultation/Sales 

 ThoroFan Board Member

 Member – NTWAB

Through hands-on work at barns, I learned valuable lessons about Thoroughbred conformation, gait, and temperament and later worked withThoroughbred rescue/re-train organizations. I have committed my passion for horses to the intensive study of pedigree and breeding theory for the last 20 years. 

I support clients with all aspects of pedigree/breeding analysis, research, sales, catalogue review, and recommendations on claims or private sales. Clients include national leading owners, racing/breeding syndicates, the little guy with one mare, and everyone in between. 10-20% of all proceeds are donated to Thoroughbred rescue & retraining groups. Check out my website, Iron Maidens Thoroughbreds, and the IMTBreds blog.

I welcome your questions regarding pedigree, handicapping, and breeding. If you would like me to cover a specific topic, please contact me. 

Twitter: @IMTBreds
Facebook: IMTBreds
LinkedIn: Laurie Ross

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