Personal Ensign is one of the most iconic race mares of all time. She ran thirteen times and was never beaten, flaunting her prowess for all to see each time she set hoof on the racetrack. Personal Ensign was truly unbelievable.
The Personal Ensign Stakes (G1), a race named in her honor in 1997, and the Whitney Stakes (G1), a race in which she bested the boys in 1988, are being run this weekend. To celebrate, we are going to look back on her incredible victory in the Whitney!
At one point in her career, it was unclear if Personal Ensign was going to be able to race as a four-year old (or even as a three-year old, for that matter). She had fractured her pastern when she was just a young starlet, having won both her maiden and the Frizette Stakes (G1). That sort of injury often ended a horse’s career for good in those days. Still, her connections weren’t willing to give up on her.
Personal Ensign was operated on by Dr. Larry Bramalage; he inserted four screws into her bone. Miraculously, she returned to racing almost one year later without having lost any of her winning form. She won two Allowances before winning the Rare Perfume Stakes (G2) and Beldame Stakes (G1).
As a four-year old she swept the Shuvee Handicap (G1), Hempstead Handicap (G1), and Molly Pitcher Handicap (G1) before it was decided that she would face the boys in the Whitney at Saratoga. The Whitney Stakes has been a premier race in New York since its inauguration in 1928. The 1988 edition of the race had a purse of $270,500, yet attracted only three horses: Gulch, King’s Swan, and Personal Ensign.
Though the field was small, Personal Ensign’s competition still looked tough on paper. Gulch had already won six Grade 1s and King’s Swan was coming into the race off of a victory in the Tom Fool Handicap (G2), where he had defeated Gulch. Still, a filly beating the boys wasn’t unheard of in the Whitney.
A filly named Black Maria had won the inaugural running of the race, Bateau had won it the following year, Esposa won it in 1937, and Gallorette was victorious in the 1948 edition. The prized filly Lady’s Secret had even won the race in 1986, just two years before Personal Ensign was attempting to follow in those fillies’ footsteps.
All was still as the three horses loaded into the starting gates at Saratoga. The filly loaded in last and only a second passed before the gates flew open and the three horses bounded out. Gulch immediately went for the lead and King’s Swan stayed right at his flank. Personal Ensign, on the other hand, trailed a few lengths behind them.
The track was sloppy and favored speed, but Personal Ensign’s jockey Randy Romero remained patient and confident with his mount. As they rounded the far turn, Romero angled Personal Ensign to the outside and asked her for some speed. She responded quickly, surging up towards Gulch and King’s Swan.
King’s Swan was no match - he immediately faded behind Personal Ensign, leaving only Gulch in her way. The filly, soaked to the bone in mud, got eye to eye with Gulch and the two went pounding down the stretch together. She was able to put her head in front, but Gulch wasn’t going to give in that easy. He remained beside her, his jockey Jose Santos urging him to keep up. Together they splashed down Saratoga’s muddy stretch. Only in the final strides of the race did Gulch finally give in to his foe, allowing her to cross the wire 1 ¼ lengths ahead of him.
The race marked Personal Ensign’s tenth consecutive victory, tying her with the great Ruffian. She would go on to win the Maskette (G1) and would take the Beldame (G1) for the second year in a row. She rounded out her perfect career with a thrilling victory in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff (G1), beating Kentucky Derby winner Winning Colors in the final stride of the race.
This weekend as we watch both the Whitney Stakes and the Personal Ensign Stakes, we will remember this great mare and all of the thrills she brought to our sport in the 80s. Her legacy will remain forever.
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