Editor's Note: Randy Romero died Aug. 28, 2019.
Hall of Fame jockey Randy Romero will forever be associated with the magnificent filly Personal Ensign and the race that closed her undefeated career, the 1988 Breeders’ Cup Distaff.
The Distaff started inauspiciously for Personal Ensign at muddy Churchill Downs. It quickly became apparent that she was struggling with the gooey surface, unable to gain traction around the first turn. As speedy Winning Colors, that year’s Kentucky Derby winner, rolled to a commanding lead, Romero asked his mount for a bit more.
Personal Ensign, always so responsive to Romero, continued to slip-slide her way down the backside. Meanwhile, Winning Colors had shaken loose on the lead. Romero smooched to Personal Ensign. Now much more was needed. Still nothing.
Time was growing short. The gap was beginning to look insurmountable. Romero was desperate. What else to do?
Romero made an unusual move that startled Personal Ensign by whipping her with his left hand.
“It was an instinct I had,” he said. “It was the best move I made in my whole career.”
Personal Ensign responded by leaving the rail for a position approximately four paths out, where she discovered firmer footing. Now, the race was on! Personal Ensign launched one of the most breathtaking rallies in the history of the sport.
“We were picking up horses like they were just stopping,” Romero said. “We were going by them so fast.”
Still in the distance, though, was Winning Colors. Personal Ensign eyeballed her and found another gear. Romero stopped whipping, knowing his filly was giving him her all.
“She knew what she had to do,” Romero said. “Get that last mare.”
Personal Ensign chewed up ground with every stride and edged her rival by a nose that felt like a nostril. Romero felt exhilaration and immense relief as soon as they flashed across the finish line. Fans cheered wildly, knowing they had seen an epic contest that would be talked about for generations.
“It was unbelievable. I’ve never seen anything like that,” Romero said. “She went by her and she knew she had won. She was a proud mare.”
Personal Ensign all but danced her way to the winner’s circle. With Romero as her regular rider, the resolute daughter of Private Account closed a perfect 13 for 13 in her career.
Romero, nicknamed “Ragin’ Cajun,” would go on to finish with 4,294 victories – 122 of them graded stakes wins – and earnings of more than $75 million in a 26-year career that began in the bush tracks of Louisiana and landed him in the Racing Hall of Fame in 2010.
Romero retired in July 1999, having won riding titles at 10 tracks, including Arlington Park near Chicago, Belmont Park in New York, the Fair Grounds in New Orleans, Gulfstream Park in Florida and Keeneland Race Course in Lexington, Ky.
The 1988 Distaff mirrored the difficulty of Romero’s personal journey. He readily admits to harming his body by “flipping,” or inducing vomiting, to control his weight. He suffered more injuries than most and was involved in a horrific incident at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark., in 1983. He had covered his body with alcohol to encourage sweating when he accidently brushed against a light bulb in a hot box at Oaklawn. He suffered burns to approximately two-thirds of his body.
It is believed that Romero contracted hepatitis C stemming from blood transfusions given to him while he was recovering from his burns. One kidney needed to be removed five years after the fire. He was on dialysis to assist the remaining kidney for more than 15 years before he passed away Aug. 28, 2019.