The quest for perfection in professional sports is fraught with peril. An elite pitcher can be absolutely flawless for eight innings and lose a perfect game if he misses his spot by an inch and allows a bloop single, or an NFL team like the New England Patriots in 2007 can win every game in the regular season and breeze into the Super Bowl only to lose the big game in a monumental upset.
In horse racing, a Thoroughbred might face another star in peak form, or weather might lead to a track they don’t particularly care for, or the race might not shape up ideally. In the 1988 Breeders’ Cup Distaff, Personal Ensign dealt with all of that adversity but overcame it all with unwavering tenacity to close her undefeated career with an unforgettable victory.
The fact that Personal Ensign even made it to her third career start was a minor miracle after she fractured the pastern in her left hind leg in a workout after winning the Grade 1 Frizette Stakes in her second race. She had five screws implanted in the limb and was restricted to stall rest for three months.
“We never thought she’d race again,” trainer Shug McGaughey told BloodHorse before the 1988 Distaff, “but it was never a life-threatening situation. I thought the vets were crazy when they told me about a week after the operation she had a chance to run again.”
Personal Ensign didn’t just run, she won and won and won some more. The Ogden Phipps homebred filly by Private Account went 4-for-4 in 1987 with victories in the Grade 2 Rare Perfume and Grade 1 Beldame Stakes. Then in 1988, she ripped off six straight wins – five Grade 1s and a Grade 2 – before the final start of her career, lucky number 13, in the Distaff.
“It’ll be odd when I lead her over to the paddock for the last time,” McGaughey told BloodHorse. “For the better part of two years I’ve been coming to the barn, and she’s always been the main thing on my mind. I go to her stall and see how she is, if she’s doing good. When I think of everything I’ve done with her every morning, there will be a void there.
“Being around her and having her has been an experience I won’t forget,” McGaughey added, “but it’s not all an experience that I’m going to miss, because there’s been a lot of pressure.”
Leading up to the race, the main obstacle standing between Personal Ensign and perfection appeared to be Winning Colors, although 1988 Kentucky Oaks winner Goodbye Halo profiled as a serious threat with three Grade 1 wins that year for Hall of Fame trainer Charlie Whittingham.
Winning Colors in May had become just the third filly in history to win the Kentucky Derby. She subsequently ran third in the Preakness and sixth in the Belmont. After a freshening, Winning Colors finishing second in the Grade 1 Maskette Stakes and fourth in the Grade 1 Spinster Stakes in her final prep for the Distaff, but Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas had his filly back in top form in time the Distaff.
Winning Colors opened a comfortable 2 ½-length lead on the muddy main track while unchallenged throughout the early stages of the Distaff, setting a fairly easy pace through three-quarters of a mile in 1:12 under Gary Stevens. Personal Ensign, on the other hand, was hung wide while in traffic entering the first turn and reportedly did not care for the muddy surface under regular rider Randy Romero.
Winning Colors maintained a clear lead into deep stretch and looked like a sure-fire winner as Goodbye Halo was not making up enough ground. Personal Ensign had moved into contention on the outside but appeared to be rapidly running out of real estate. Personal Ensign showed the heart of a champion in the final sixteenth of a mile as she reached out with every stride to push her nose in front just before the finish line.
“I don’t know if it was her greatest race or not, but she ran a terrific race” McGaughey told BloodHorse after the dramatic victory to cap an unbeaten career with 13 wins in as many starts. “I’m not trying to take anything away from anybody else, but I’m not sure how well she handled the track. When she got straightened away, Randy told me she got her feet under her really well, but I thought she was beaten. I probably didn’t think she had a chance until maybe five or six steps before the wire. I think a race like [the Distaff] just shows what she’s made of.”
“She didn’t want to get beat,” Romero told BloodHorse. “She was determined to get the job done.”