No Debate: Alysheba Over ‘Ensign’ for Horse of Year

Washington Post

When ballots were issued for the Eclipse Awards, many conscientious voters agonized over the choice between Alysheba and Personal Ensign more than they did over the race between Bush and Dukakis.

Some never could come to a satisfactory single pick for 1988’s horse of the year, who will be named later this month. I haved spoken to two voters recently who said they solved their dilemma by casting half a vote for the colt, half a vote for the filly. This is nonsense. There was no such need for such indecisiveness, for there was no doubt about the year’s outstanding thoroughbred performer.

Alysheba was the horse of the year -- and any opinion to the contrary is sentimental claptrap.

The accomplishments of the two horses are well known. Alysheba won seven of nine starts against the toughest competition in America. His victory in the Breeders’ Cup Classic -- on the type of muddy track that he had never been able to handle before -- brought his earnings for the season to $3.8 million and made him the top thoroughbred money-winner of all time.


Personal Ensign won all seven of her starts to end her career with a 13-for-13 record -- the best of any American racehorse in 80 years. Her victory in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff, where she looked hopelessly beaten but lunged at the wire to win by a nose, will be remembered as one of the guttiest and most exciting single performances of all time.

To some people, evaluating Alysheba against Personal Ensign may seem to be an apples-and- oranges comparison, because the horses competed in different leagues, with Personal Ensign running all but one of her races against other fillies and mares.

But this is not analagous to comparing the abilities, say, of a sprinter and a 1 1/2-mile turf horse, or a 2-year-old with a 4-year-old. The reason Personal Ensign never ran against Alysheba and males of his calibre was not that she couldn’t, but that she wouldn’t. Trainer Shug McGaughey managed Personal Ensign judiciously to compile that perfect record and ran her against males only once, in a three-horse field.

There’s nothing wrong with this, of course, but Personal Ensign should not get any special dispensation in the horse-of-the-year voting because of her sex.

Fillies are expected to face and beat top male competition to be champions -- and the great ones do. It’s hardly an impossible task: four of the 10 Breeders’ Cup grass races to date have been won by females. In Europe, the top fillies and mares rarely run against members of their own sex at all and the exceptional ones (like Miesque, Pebbles and All Along in recent years) have regularly trounced colts.

Giving the horse-of-the-year title to a filly who went through Personal Ensign’s schedule would be like giving the No. 1 collegiate football ranking to an Ivy League team that went 10-0-and then declined to play in a major bowl game.

McGaughey’s judicious managing of Personal Ensign was well-advised, because it is very doubtful that she would have been able to handle the country’s best male racehorses. She was born into a weak generation of fillies, and in her career faced tough competition from only one other filly: Winning Colors. The times of her races were certainly respectable, but they were not spectacular, and on her best day Personal Ensign never earned a speed figure within three lengths of Alysheba’s usual effort.

If Personal Ensign had been subjected to the grueling schedule that Alysheba endured, I’d bet that she could not have won more than two out of nine races.

This is not to denigrate what she did accomplish. Her consistency and her courage were admirable, and she will occupy a secure niche in the history of the sport. But Alysheba was the horse of the year for 1988.