LOUISVILLE, Ky. — 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.