04/08/2010 11:00PM

Personal Ensign: The epitome of class

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NEW YORK - Personal Ensign, who died Thursday at the age of 26, will be remembered as one of American racing's greatest fillies or mares on three different and equally spectacular counts: her undefeated career, her dramatic victory in the 1988 Breeders' Cup Distaff, and her astounding performance as a broodmare.

An Ogden Phipps homebred by Private Account and the Hoist the Flag mare Grecian Banner, and trained by Shug McGaughey, Personal Ensign made her debut on Sept. 28, 1986, and if you were there you still remember it. The big 2-year-old bay filly, sent off at 9-10 in a loaded maiden race, hesitated at the start for a beat and was last as the field of seven came away from the gate, but was up to second after the first quarter, in front after a half-mile, and 12 3/4 lengths clear at the finish after seven furlongs in 1:22.80. Graceful Darby and Nastique, who ran second and third, both went on to be multiple graded-stakes winners.

She returned 15 days later as the 3-10 favorite in the Frizette, having scared off all but two opponents, and wore down the more experienced Collins to win by a head. That made her the favorite for the 2-year-old filly title and the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, but she came out of a prerace workout with a broken pastern. It was uncertain whether she would ever race again, but she returned 11 months later with a leg full of screws and won four races in just six weeks - two allowances, the Grade 2 Rare Perfume, and then the Grade 1 Beldame.

She was now 6 for 6, but all at Belmont and without a championship in her two abbreviated seasons. She made up for that and more in her 4-year-old campaign of 1988.

After winning the Shuvee and Hempstead under top weight, she ventured to Monmouth and won the Molly Pitcher by eight, then beat the males Gulch and King's Swan in a three-horse Whitney at Saratoga. Then came the first of her two epic battles with the 3-year-old filly Winning Colors. In the one-mile Maskette, Personal Ensign was six lengths behind, twice as far back as she had ever been after an opening quarter, but ran down the Kentucky Derby-winning filly to score by three-quarters of a length. She then tuned up for her final career start by winning the Beldame again, by 5 1/2.

Now 12 for 12, Personal Ensign was 1-2 to remain undefeated in her final career start, the 1988 Distaff at Churchill Downs, which was hosting the Breeders' Cup for the first time. The track came up sloppy, though, and despite her wet-track pedigree and debut victory in the mud at Belmont, it was clear as the field chased a loose Winning Colors down the backstretch that Personal Ensign was not a happy filly.

"She just wasn't handling it all," said Randy Romero, who rode her in 12 of her 13 starts (Jerry Bailey filled in for start No. 3). "Great as she was, I thought she was beat."

What happened next still raises goosebumps. Personal Ensign was floundering and simply had too much ground to make up, but put her head down and began to gain with each stride. It still looked impossible a few yards from the wire, but somehow she got there, beating the Derby winner by a nose with the Kentucky Oaks winner just a half-length back in third. She was the first American champion to retire undefeated with a dozen or more starts since Colin had gone 15 for 15 (12 of them as a 2-year-old) 80 years earlier.

She was inducted into the Hall of Fame alongside Alysheba five years later, the first time she was eligible, and that would have been more than enough, but she had already begun a remarkable legacy as a broodmare by then. Her first foal was Miner's Mark, who would win that fall's Jockey Club Gold Cup. Her fourth foal, My Flag (by Easy Goer), won the 1995 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, the race Personal Ensign had missed when she broke her pastern. Seven years later, My Flag's foal Storm Flag Flying also won the Juvenile Fillies, an unprecedented and astounding three-generation triumph. (For good measure, Personal Ensign also was the dam of Our Emblem, who sired the 2002 Derby winner, War Emblem.)

Personal Ensign's unbeaten career, her Distaff, and her prowess as a producer were the epitome of Thoroughbred greatness. It's also worth remembering now, in an era when we can't seem to get the game's two best fillies into the same starting gate or decide what constitutes a true championship event, that it was her two triumphs against Winning Colors that answered any questions about her competition or her place in the sport's pantheon.