Race of the Week 2017

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Zipse At The Track

The Greatest Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic (Distaff) of Them All

Personal Ensign
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.


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Older Comments about The Greatest Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic (Distaff) of Them All...

Personal Ensign proved what a champion she was that day. Daughter My Flag won the 1995 BC Juvenile Fillies race reminiscent of her mother’s historic run. My Flag’s daughter Storm Flag Flying won the 2002 BC Fillies to make it three generations of Breeders Cup winners, all trained by Shug McGauhey.
No question one of the best B.C. memories, excellent article.
Awesome article!!! I'm going to re watch that race now!
Great description of a race that will always stick out in my mind. This was about the time that my father was introducing me to the game & I clearly recall watching this with him & his friends at the old Ak-sar-ben race course.
Awesome article. Excellently written. Perfect ending - in the writing and in the race. Very well done!
Beautifully written, Brian. I recall the gamut of emotions: Sorrow-during the running of the race when you think that this is the day she's beaten, during the race; pity-when she comes into the straightaway, only then beginning her kick, and you realize that she's trying to finish the race with heart; doubt-when her kick is too futile,with the track conditions being what they are. Too much, too little, too late. possibility?-when it dawns on you that she's making up huge amounts of ground. My eyes fixate on her, wondering where the finish line is(since Churchill has the largest stretch run), and as I watch, simultaneously she draws even, there's the finish line, and SHE'S UP!!!! SHE DID IT!!! SHE DID IT!!!! What a scintillating stretch run!!! Tom Durken could've used his patented "It's a heart-pounding, pulsating, stretch drive!!!" It was a classic moment that will go down in the annals of history.
Grooms told me that when Winning Colors came there to be bred she was one of the most "studdish" females they had eve seen and the fact she did not "catch" for a year compounded thier belief that she arrived full of remnant male steroids.
Beautifully recounted, Brian... what a champion she was. There are moments in Breeders Cup history that will live forever, and this is one of them.
These are the moments when I wish my parents were in the business or at least followed racing when I was kid. I live in the history now along with the present. I love watching the replay of this race and the stories that come with it.. Amazing pair a fillies that threw down on that special day!
A great read, great comments, and even for us who only ever saw it on youtube, that race has worn grooves in our brains. SUCH an amazing thriller.
The next Breeders Cup will be my 27th, I missed the ones in 1985 and 1990, but of all the Cups I have seen this one had the best overall fields. In addition to the races you mentioned, the Turf was a great race with the tough gelding Great Communicator coming back after being passed in the stretch to win, beating Sunshine Forever and a good group of European horses. The Distaff was the best though and Personal Ensign deserves to be ranked with the greatest fillies and mares to ever race.
Poor Romero. His life has been upside down since then needing a kidney transplant. A very talented rider as was his friend and comteporary Shane Sellers. Going without food for so long must make some people change and not for the better either.
The Derby winner was loose on the lead and my eyes were at the back of the pack waiting for Personal Ensign to make her move. I also remember Randy Romero after the race saying "I always dreamed of having her undefeated, glad it is over". Beautiful memories, but hard to believe it has been that long.
Great article, Brian. I tapped out on Winning Colors to win, and keyed her over Goodbye Halo and Personal Ensign in the exacta and trifecta. I've never been so sure of a big payoff at the eighth pole only to have it snatched away from me. But it was hard to feel bad after witnessing such an awesome and historic performance.
Best Breeder's Cup Race by far. I was in the stands screaming her home- my throat was sore for days. I love the last line by the way, you couldn't have end it any better!
Personal Ensign beat males that year too
I remember watching that race from the clubhouse restaurant at Philadelphia Park. Once the race began, I was convinced that there was no way that Personal Ensign was going to catch WInning Colors. But she dug in, and on pure grit got herself up at the wire. It was unbelievable and amazing! Way to go Zipse, going back to 1988 to select the best Distaff of them all!
If you watch all the races that day, NOTHING moved up from the 1 or two path all day except in the sprint. Easy Goer languished near the rail, Forty Niner fell back on the rail and Personal Ensign rallied from the 4 or 5 path. Poor old gal on the lead. What an abused animal who left the track totally beaten in spirit and ability once the butcher was through with her.
All those surgical screws in her hind leg too......Simply amamzing.
After 24 years and watching it countless times, I still expect PE to get beaten a nose and am continually amazed that she gets up to win. This race gives me chills every time I watch it!

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Meet Brian Zipse 

Brian has been a passionate fan of horse racing his entire life. Taken to the races at a very young age, he has been lucky enough to see all the greats in person from Secretariat, Forego, and Ruffian through Rachel Alexandra, Zenyatta, and American Pharoah. Before coming to the Nation, Brian displayed his love for the sport through the development of his horse racing website, which quickly became one of the most popular blogs in the game. 

The Editor of Horse Racing Nation from 2010-2017, Brian authored a daily column as Zipse at the Track, or ZATT for short, and added his editorial flare to the overall content of the website. Now a Senior Writer for HRN, Brian continues to contribute his thoughts on racing, as well as co-hosting the popular racing show, HorseCenter. A big supporter of thoroughbred aftercare, he serves as the President of The Exceller Fund.

Brian's work has also been published on several leading industry sites. He has consulted for leading contest site Derby Wars, is both a Hall of Fame and NTRA poll voter, and is a Vox Populi committee member. 

A horse owner and graduate of DePaul University, Brian lives just outside of Louisville with his wife Candice and daughter Kendra.


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