Personal ensign couldn't wait to get out onto the track at Belmont Park on Sunday for the 50th running of the 1�-mile Beldame Stakes. As her handlers went through the usual prerace preparations—adjusting her saddle and tightening the girth—the 4-year-old bay filly fought her bit, rolled her eyes and fidgeted. Trainer Shug McGaughey stood nearby looking tense, but his wife, Mary Jane, who is Personal Ensign's exercise rider, was calm. "The more she runs, the less nervous I get," she said.
Only four opponents turned out to take on Personal Ensign in the Beldame. Which was small wonder, considering that Personal Ensign won this race last year and hasn't lost since. In fact, she has never lost. At 16 hands, two inches, she towers over her competition, and in her 11 career victories before Sunday's Beldame she had won by a total of nearly 50 lengths. Of course, the bettors at Belmont sent her off the 1-10 favorite. She didn't disappoint, easily winning by 5� lengths in a fast 2:01[1/5].
When jockey Randy Romero steered her into the winner's circle, he looked up at the crowd and raised an index finger. No. 1. "She's the best thing I ever rode," he said. "You work all your life to ride something like her." The fans gave the filly a standing ovation, and McGaughey finally remembered to smile. "I'm glad this is over with," he said. "One to go."
The one is the 1?-mile Breeders' Cup Distaff on Nov. 5 at Churchill Downs. With a victory in that $1 million outing, Personal Ensign would become the first important American thoroughbred to retire undefeated since the great Colin in 1908; what's more, a win would give her a shot at the Horse of the Year title.
Not bad for a horse who has been racing for the past two years with five screws in her left hind leg. One month after breaking her maiden in September 1986 at Belmont, where she dazzled everyone with a 13-length victory her first time out, Personal Ensign broke the leg during a routine workout. "She went very easy in the work," says McGaughey. "She came back from the track perfect and cooled out just fine, but 30 minutes later she was dead lame in her stall." The X-rays showed a side-to-side break in the long pastern bone. McGaughey summoned veterinarian Larry Bramlage, of Columbus, Ohio, who flew to New York to operate. The filly had five screws implanted in her leg. "We never felt her life was in danger," says McGaughey, "but I sure never thought she'd race again."
Personal Ensign's owner and breeder, Ogden Phipps, wasn't so sure. The filly, a daughter of Private Account by Grecian Banner, took 11 months off and came back to the track late in her 3-year-old season. She hit the ground running in September 1987, winning at Belmont by 3� lengths, and she hasn't looked back since. She beat the boys in the Whitney Handicap at Saratoga in August, and she has beaten every filly who has challenged her. That list includes the 3-year-old Winning Colors, the giant roan who outran 16 males to win the Kentucky Derby. The two fillies met in the Maskette Mile at Belmont on Sept. 10, and both performed brilliantly, Personal Ensign prevailing by three quarters of a length.
Their rematch will be in the Distaff on Breeders' Cup day in Louisville. "You've got two superstars. One is the Derby winner and the other is undefeated, so the race has got romance to it right there," says Winning Colors' trainer, D. Wayne Lukas.
Still, the $3 million Breeders' Cup Classic will be run about two hours after the Distaff, and if Alysheba wins the former and Personal Ensign the latter, another confrontation will move to the fore: Who is Horse of the Year? An Alysheba victory would lift the 4-year-old colt past John Henry ($6,597,947) as the top money winner of all time, an enormous achievement. Then again, Personal Ensign would be unbeaten. There undoubtedly will be much clashing of opinion, and rest assured that much will made of the fact that Personal Ensign is a filly.
There are few things that arouse the emotions of race fans more than the equine members of the so-called weaker sex, especially when they take on the boys and beat them. Conquering the colts is what raises the stature of a good filly to greatness. But it also causes a lot of confusion. Horsemen and racing fans often equate a filly with a woman and a colt with a man; it's a given that human males are physically stronger than females, but the discrepancy isn't nearly as great in the equine world. "The top woman sprinter, like Flo-Jo, can't beat a Ben Johnson, and the best woman golfer can't beat Greg Norman," says McGaughey. "People relate that to colts and fillies. But it doesn't work that way."
Dr. Benson Martin, a veterinarian at the New Bolton School of Veterinary Medicine in Pennsylvania, says, "Generally, colts mature earlier and tend to be more precocious than the fillies. However, fillies like Winning Colors and Personal Ensign are obviously females who have come into their own very early. I don't think of them as freaks. They're exceptional athletes."