Stars of Yesterday: Looking Back at Best Arkansas Derby Winners
Perfection is often chased but rarely attained, in any aspect of life.
Blessed are those who can experience it, even if it’s for only a short while.
But for an entire career? At the highest level of your profession?
It can be a futile quest, one worthy of Don Quixote.
On Friday, when Songbird runs in the $2 million Longines Breeders’ Cup Distaff at Santa Anita Park, she will put a perfect record to the test. Eleven times she has raced, 11 times she has been in the winner’s circle.
Now she will face her most formidable challenge when a pair of champions – Beholder and Stellar Wind – will try to derail her winning streak and render her a notch below flawless.
It’s a scene similar to the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic when Zenyatta, in the 20th and final start of a Hall of Fame career, tried to end her career with 20 wins and not a single loss. Yet not even the mighty Zenyatta, after winning in her two first tries at the Breeders’ Cup, could embrace it for a final time as she suffered a heartbreaking loss by a head to Blame.
And it’s a race that will serve as a reminder of the 1988 Breeders’ Cup Distaff, when Personal Ensign proved that perfection is not just a fairytale.
It was 28 years ago at Churchill Downs that Ogden Phipps’ homebred Personal Ensign brought perfection into the Breeders’ Cup dictionary with a performance that many regard as the most dramatic victory in the 32 editions of the World Championships since its inception in 1984.
It was indeed a race that did not fail to disappoint on any level.
It brought Personal Ensign, with an unbeaten 12-for-12 record heading into the final start of her career, together with Kentucky Derby winner Winning Colors on the same track where she became just the third filly to win the run for the roses.
Even the people behind the two horses were among the sport’s best at the time.
Personal Ensign was owned by Phipps, head of one of the sport’s most famous stables, and trained by future Hall of Famer Shug McGaughey.
Winning Colors was owned by Gene Klein, who in a six-year involvement in racing received an Eclipse Award as the sport’s leading owner three times, and trained by a future Hall of Famer in D. Wayne Lukas, who spent decades atop racing’s earnings list until he was surpassed by one of his protégés, Todd Pletcher.
And the clash between the two equine champions ended quite fittingly, with just a few inches deciding the outcome.
“Looking back at the race, it’s still a big thrill,” McGaughey said in an interview last week. “Personal Ensign had won 12 in a row and the Breeders’ Cup was going to be the biggest race of her life. If she had gotten beat, it would have been disappointing because she was going to be retired after the race. The 13-for-13 meant an awful lot to us and to beat a filly like Winning Colors to get it made it even more special.”
In the days leading up to the 1988 Distaff, the race seemed like a foregone conclusion and a perfect coronation for Personal Ensign, a homebred daughter of Private Account whose heart and grit surfaced early when she suffered a fractured pastern at two and still managed to make it back to the races as an even better athlete.
“She had won the Frizette [in her second start] and was breezing unbelievably after that. We were looking forward to the Breeders’ Cup until she was injured,” McGaughey said. “Thankfully, she never had a problem there again.”
Personal Ensign was sidelined for more than 10 months and did not return until September of her 3-year-old season. She ended that year with a win in the Grade 1 Beldame Stakes against older horses and at four made seven starts, six of them in Grade 1 stakes.
One of them came in September when Personal Ensign and Winning Colors squared off in the Grade 1 Maskette Stakes at Belmont Park, and Phipps’ filly won by three-quarters of a length under regular rider Randy Romero.
“We had beaten [Winning Colors] fairly easy at Belmont,” McGaughey recalled. “I don’t think she ran her best race but through sheer class she got through.”
Following the Maskette, Personal Ensign romped by 5 ½ lengths in the Grade 1 Beldame, while Winning Colors tossed in a clunker in the Spinster, finishing fourth and losing by 15 lengths.
As a result, McGaughey said he was more concerned with another 3-year-old filly, the Charlie Whittingham-trained 1988 Kentucky Oaks winner Goodbye Halo, than Winning Colors.
Yet the outlook changed when Nov. 5, 1988 turned out to be a miserable, cold, rainy day at Churchill Downs that included snow showers in the morning.
“At first I wasn’t worried,” McGaughey said about the conditions. “We thought we were in good shape. She had won in the mud at Saratoga in the Whitney earlier in the year, but the mud there is different than mud at Churchill Downs. We had a lot of big horses beat over there when the track isn’t right.”
Meanwhile, Lukas turned in one of his most masterful training jobs in returning Winning Colors to top form for her return trip to Churchill Downs.
The betting public focused on Personal Ensign’s unbeaten record and made her a prohibitive 1-2 favorite. Winning Colors was the 4-1 second choice in an entry with Classic Crown and Goodbye Halo was next at 5.50-1.
But when the starting gates opened, that price on Winning Colors seemed a bargain. The gray or roan filly quickly opened a clear lead and owned a 2 ½-length advantage after a half-mile in a moderate 47 4/5 seconds. Goodbye Halo and 30-1 shot Sham Shay chased her while Personal Ensign, in a sign that something was amiss, was farther back than usual in fifth place.
“She caught a slick racetrack, which she really didn’t want,” McGaughey said.
When the field rounded the turn and Winning Colors and Gary Stevens were still cruising along on a clear lead and Personal Ensign remained one-paced behind them, McGaughey had a sinking feeling.
“At the three-eighths pole, I was sitting next to a friend and said, ‘Not today,’ ” McGaughey said.
But then, as the field turned into the stretch, destiny finally kicked in.
While Personal Ensign did not motor into a freakish gear, she slowly began to make up ground as fatigue set in with the horses ahead of her.
By the eighth pole, she was third, but she still had four lengths to make up and had to catch a Kentucky Derby winner in order to achieve perfection.
Gallantly, Personal Ensign cut into Winning Colors’ lead with each stride. As Winning Colors valiantly fended off Goodbye Halo, Personal Ensign and Romero kept coming … and coming … and coming.
“It wasn’t like she was shot out of cannon in the stretch,” McGaughey said. “I never thought she had a chance to win until she did.”
In the final 50 yards, it was clear that perfection would be decided by the bob of the head and Personal Ensign was not to be denied.
In her last, determined stride, Personal Ensign stuck her nose in front of Winning Colors to win by just a few inches.
It was a perfect finish. Simply perfect.
1988 Breeders’ Cup Distaff
“I knew she won,” McGaughey said. “But when I walked through the grandstand toward the winner’s circle I looked up at a monitor and saw she won by less than I thought she did.”
For Lukas, any satisfaction in Winning Colors’ gallant performance was tinged with the heartbreak of a narrow loss in a race that stands as one of the Breeders’ Cup’s most exciting moments.
“When they started breeding horses 250 or 300 years ago, that was the kind of race everybody had in mind,” Lukas told the Los Angeles Times after the race. “This wasn’t a track for front-runners to last, but Winning Colors almost did it.
“When you get beat like that, you’re disappointed for a second. But then you realize that you’ve almost beat a great filly.”
Yes, almost, but after the 1988 Distaff a great filly was now a perfect filly.
“It was a big sigh of relief,” McGaughey said. “It was the Breeders’ Cup. It was Mr. Phipps’ first Breeders’ Cup win. It was great, but there was still more to do in other races with other horses from our barn. It wasn’t like we could watch a replay all day long.
“But I also knew that victory had nothing to do with anything I did. It wasn’t anything Randy Romero did. It was all her that day. It is amazing what some horses will overcome.”
Especially when they have a perfect record.
Editor's Note: This story was first published in 2016 and has been updated.