No Breeders’ Cup moment remains so riveting to so many racing fans as Personal Ensign’s last-stride triumph in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff at Churchill Downs in 1988. More than two decades later, hardened racetrackers still marvel at the way the Ogden Phipps champion overcame every disadvantage to win what had been announced as the final start of her career. And in so winning, the five-year-old filly retired a perfect 13-for-13 from the races, the first Thoroughbred racehorse to retire undefeated since Kentucky-bred Colin won all 15 of his starts in 1907-08.
“Any time anyone talks about the most exciting Breeders’ Cup moment — and I know it’s the most obvious one — but I always go back to the Breeders’ Cup Distaff at Churchill Downs,” says Steven Crist, editor of the Daily Racing Form. “That could be my all-time most exciting racing moment.”
After three years of racing, including an injury sustained as a two-year-old in which a fractured pastern bone was surgically repaired with the aid of five small, permanently placed screws, Personal Ensign arrived at Churchill Downs as the favorite for the Distaff, going off at odds of 1-2. That’s betting $2 to get back a measly $3 — even though she was stoutly matched in a field of nine older fillies and mares that included Winning Colors, that year’s Kentucky Derby winner, and Goodbye Halo, the winner of the Kentucky Oaks.
Then there was the track, rated between sloppy and muddy all day. Plus a cold and drizzling rain, which didn’t come down in drops but in windy mists.
As the Distaff field turned onto the backstretch, Personal Ensign was having trouble keeping pace with the pack, obviously not “getting hold” of the track. And even though she made up some ground on the turn for home, the task seemed hopeless.
“You’ve seen this race a thousand times, and every time Personal Ensign doesn’t get there,” Crist says. “I can’t think of any race, Breeders’ Cup or not, where a horse looked that hopelessly beaten. . . . Then she made that final surge and got there. It’s the fairytale ending people were looking for last year (with Zenyatta chasing Blame in the Classic) and didn’t quite get. But for Personal Ensign to get there in the final strides, nailing Winning Colors and retiring undefeated, that’s one of those lifetime great racing moments.”
Coming back to the winner’s circle, splattered with mud, jockey Randy Romero said he’d always believed Personal Ensign could do it. And more importantly, Romero knew Personal Ensign believed she could do it.
“She just kept trying and trying, and I could see Winning Colors was getting back a little,” said Romero. “There’s one in a million you can get like her, and she’s the one.”