About 2 years ago, Personal Ensign had gone through a useful workout at Belmont Park and was about to be flown to California to run in the Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita.
The 2-year-old filly cooled down nicely at the barn after the workout, but as a groom was putting her into a stall, he found that she couldn't walk. She had broken a bone just below the ankle in her left rear leg.
"Mr. Phipps (Ogden Phipps, Personal Ensign's owner-breeder) had watched her cool out and had gone home," said Shug McGaughey, who trains the filly. "I still don't know what happened. She was horsin' (nature's way of telling a filly that it's breeding season) that day, and maybe that had something to do with it. Maybe the injury started on the track, and she got nervous going back to the stall and aggravated it."
Whatever the reason, surgery was required, and Larry Bramlage, a specialist from Ohio State, was called upon.
McGaughey went to Santa Anita, anyway, because he had 3 other starters in the Breeders' Cup. One of the first people he saw in California was Bramlage.
"What are you doing here?" McGaughey asked. "I thought you were supposed to be back in New York, with my filly."
"I had an emergency out here," Bramlage said. "I tried (unsuccessfully) to save that horse of (trainer) John Russell's."
Bramlage eventually performed the surgery on Personal Ensign at the equine hospital of Bill Reed, a New York veterinarian. McGaughey saw Reed at Belmont Park a few days after the Breeders' Cup.
"Well, your filly's going to make it," Reed said.
"Going to make it?" McGaughey said, somewhat nonplussed. "I didn't think there was ever any doubt about her coming out of this alive."
Said Reed, "No, what I mean is that she's going to make it back to the races."
Five screws were inserted into Personal Ensign's leg, fusing the fracture, and the news from Reed was a bonus for McGaughey, who figured that the only future the filly had was as a broodmare.
They should be calling her Perfect Ensign now. The 4-year-old filly will make the last appearance of her career in the $1-million Breeders' Cup Distaff on Saturday at Churchill Downs. A win would enable her to retire undefeated, with 13 straight victories, and make her the first major horse to go through a career unbeaten since Colin, who won all 14 of his races in 1907-08. A victory might also make Personal Ensign only the 6th female to win horse-of-the-year honors since the awards were first given in 1936. However, some observers believe that even if Personal Ensign wins, Alysheba would have to lose in the Breeders' Cup Classic for her to gain the title.
Randy Romero will ride Personal Ensign for the 10th straight time Saturday, but Jerry Bailey was the jockey when she made her first start since the surgery, at Belmont Park in September of 1987. It was the day's fifth race, a $31,000 allowance for horses who had yet to win 3 times, but inexplicably it drew a classy field of 6 fillies.
"Think they'll grade (highly rate) this allowance next year?" Jeff Lukas, another trainer, said to McGaughey in the paddock before the race.
Untested for 11 months, Personal Ensign won easily. Personal Ensign, under wraps because of McGaughey's precautionary pre-race instructions to Bailey, won in a gallop, by almost 4 lengths.
"Geez, she was rolling so good, I was tempted to cluck to her through the stretch," Bailey said. "It was tempting to ask her, to see what she could really do."
Romero has had that opportunity in Personal Ensign's ensuing races. She won 3 more times in 1987 and this year she has 6 straight victories, increasing her stakes victory total to 9. Most of her victories have been routs. She won a stake as a 2-year-old by a head, and the closest anyone has come to her since then was when Winning Colors lost by three-quarters of a length after a valiant stretch duel in the Maskette at Belmont on Sept. 10. Winning Colors, who last May became only the 3rd filly to win the Kentucky Derby, will be running in the Distaff on Saturday at the same track. Her chances of upsetting Personal Ensign have been questioned, however, because she recently ran a poor race against a mediocre field at Keeneland.
McGaughey was recently asked why he wasn't making it easier for horse-of-the-year voters by running Personal Ensign against Alysheba, Forty Niner, Cutlass Reality and the others in the Classic. After all, it wouldn't be the first time a filly faced a male field.
"Because I can't run Seeking the Gold and Personal Flag (Personal Ensign's brother) in the Distaff," McGaughey said, referring to the race that is restricted to females. Phipps also owns Seeking the Gold and Personal Flag. If Personal Ensign can win the Distaff and finish a career that has been unmatched for 70 years, McGaughey will take his chances in the voting. It's not by accident that he's trying to spoil Alysheba's season by running the other 2 horses in the Classic.
Comparisons have been made between Personal Ensign and Ruffian, that undefeated filly who won all 10 of her races before breaking down--and later dying--in a match race against Kentucky Derby winner Foolish Pleasure in 1975.
McGaughey only knows what he has in his barn. "In the Maskette, she spotted Winning Colors 10 lengths going a flat mile," he said. "Then she made a big run to get there and the time was 1:34 1/5. Even forgetting about the screws in her leg, her accomplishments have been just unbelievable."
Personal Ensign's last victory was by 5 1/2 lengths in the Beldame at Belmont on Oct. 16. Classic Crown and Sham Say, probables for Saturday's Distaff, ran 2nd and 3rd that day.
"You wait all your life to have a horse like this," Romero said. "She's the best I ever rode. It's a great feeling when you ride her."
But it won't last long.
Next spring, Personal Ensign, the daughter of Private Account and Grecian Banner, will be sent to Lexington, Ky., to be bred to Mr. Prospector, the preeminent sire who has 8 starters--including Seeking the Gold--in Saturday's 7 Breeders' Cup races.
Horse Racing Notes
On Sunday, Ferdinand, winner of the last year's Breeders' Cup Classic at Hollywood Park, made his first public appearance on the Churchill Downs track since winning the Kentucky Derby in 1986. Ferdinand, who was retired last week, was paraded between races as Churchill opened its fall season. Ferdinand will be sent to Claiborne Farm in Paris, Ky., Tuesday and starts a stud career there next year. . . . Two weeks ago, the owners of Coach, who include Laker Coach Pat Riley, received purse money of about $7,000 for their horse's victory because of a disqualification in the 1st race on Kentucky Derby day, which was May 7. The 1st-place finisher, who ran under the name Briarwood, was disqualified because his real name was Blairwood and his trainer was suspended for not correcting the error before the race. Churchill Downs delayed paying the purse until a final appeal by the trainer was disallowed in court.
Julie Krone, who is riding Forty Niner in Saturday's Classic, may not become the first female jockey in the Breeders' Cup, after all. Dr. Bizzare, entered in an earlier race--the Juvenile--may be ridden by Patty Cooksey. Last Saturday, Cooksey rode Dr. Bizzare to victory in the Juvenile Stakes at Beulah Park, which was her 3rd victory in 5 races with the colt. In his only other start, Dr. Bizzare won with Krone aboard. Cooksey said Sunday that she still has a chance to ride Dr. Bizzare in the Breeders' Cup, but trainer, Bernie Flint, hasn't decided yet. "I'm aware of the woman thing, but that's not the big reason I want to ride him," she said. "I think he's got a shot to win the race, because he's worked well over Churchill, even though he's never run here." Would Cooksey be disappointed if Krone got the mount? "I don't think I'd be able to handle that," she said. "If I lost the mount, it'd be better if it was to somebody besides her."
Trainer Craig Lewis worked 2 Breeders' Cup candidates Sunday, and both turned in slow times for 6 furlongs--Cutlass Reality in 1:15 and Music Merci in 1:17. "I've never been paid for a fast workout," Lewis said.