Personal Ensign died of natural causes on April 8th at age 26 at historic Claiborne Farm. The Phipps' family homebred daughter of Private Account out of the Hoist the Flag mare Grecian Banner will always be remembered as the Breeders' Cup Distaff Champion who went out on top after her 13th thrilling victory from as many starts, quite simply perfection. Thus, Personal Ensign is regarded as one of the greatest race mares of all-time. In fact, in a poll of "Greatest female race horse ever" I started last year during Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta's summer assault on horse racing, Rachel narrowly edged out Personal Ensign (7 to 6) with Ruffian also receiving a few votes but Zenyatta getting shut out (vote was prior to Breeders' Cup). I'm interested to see how these numbers may change at the conclusion to this year's season.
Personal Ensign's first of eight grade I wins came at age two, but she then was sidelined with a fractured pastern until September of her three year-old season (thus, no spring Classic attempts). Her four year-old season in 1988 was comparable to Rachel's Horse of the Year campaign last year in that she had 7 wins -- including beating the boys (Gulch) in The Whitney Handicap. Perhaps her '88 campaign was even better when you consider she competed in and won the year-end Breeders' Cup Distaff. In that career defining race at Churchill Downs, seemingly beaten on a sloppy track, Personal Ensign roared down the center of that long stretch under Randy Romero (who coincidentally will be enshrined into the Racing Hall of Fame this August at Saratoga, thanks to P.E.!) to catch the free-running Kentucky Derby winner, Winning Colors, by a scant nose on the line. One of Tom Durkin's greatest race calls ever (check the Youtube video and tell me you don't have goose bumps!). And I believe she also would have been the overall Horse of the Year in 1988 had the much-hyped Alysheba not gotten slighted the year before after losing to Ferdinand by a nose in the Classic.
"She was a wonderful filly who overcame injury to win 13 straight races," said trainer Shug McGaughey. "She was certainly one of my all-time favorites. She was a career maker."
In addition to perfection ON the track, her accomplishments in the breeding shed far exceeded what most great race mares are able to produce through their progeny. Her first foal - Miner's Mark (not to be confused with the Kentucky 90 proof spirit) was a grade I winner and her second foal - the Mr. Prospector colt Our Emblem - is the sire of 2002 Kentucky Derby winner War Emblem. My Flag, the regal daughter of Easy Goer and Personal Ensign, won the 1995 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies and her daughter Storm Flag Flying reproduced that effort with a win in the 2002 running. Another Personal Ensign colt, Traditionally, was a Grade I winner in 2001 and another daughter, Title Seeker, is the dam of yet another Grade II winner, Seeking the Title. This success led to her being named the Kentucky Broodmare of the Year in 1996.
Along with Kentucky Derby winning fillies Genuine Risk and Winning Colors (who both passed away in 2008 - see archived tributes), Personal Ensign was the last anchor of the triangle that comprised the three best fillies over the last quarter century. That is, until our current string of femme fatals. Let's continue to wish Zenyatta and Rachel all the best to see if they are up to the challenge of capping their careers with as dramatic a finish as the graceful Personal Ensign!