What agony to be a fan of the distaff side in November of 1988.
Root for the undefeated Personal Ensign, who had beaten colts in the Whitney two months earlier?
Or root for the Kentucky Derby winner Winning Colors?
How to choose?
Each time I watch the race (available here from The Blood-Horse, along with commentary on Personal Ensign’s “perfect trip”), at the start I can’t decide which filly I want to win. It was always Personal Ensign, always that Shug/Phipps tradition…until recently, when, in the wake of Rags to Riches’ magnificent victory in the Belmont, I watched the 1988 Distaff for a first time in a long time…how could I not root for the filly who won a Triple Crown race?
But as they turn into the stretch, as I think, how cool—how cool–is it that the Derby winner is lengths in front—she’s going to do it!—my heart tells me who I want to win, because I am asking myself: Where is Personal Ensign?
My brain tells me that the filly winner of the Derby deserves to win this biggest race of the year.
But my heart asks: where is Personal Ensign?
The ending always feels nearly exactly right, nearly too close to call. As superb as Winning Colors was that year, it was Personal Ensign in the running for Horse of the Year, in the running up until the very last race that day, when Alysheba did what he needed to do to garner that honor.
In that Breeders’ Cup Classic, Alysheba battled Seeking the Gold on the track, but in the hearts and minds of American racing fans and turf writers, he was also battling the filly who had won earlier in the day, the filly who, until his nose crossed the wire first, was the pre-eminent race horse in the United States.
It is tempting to make admittedly inexact comparisons to the races being run today and tomorrow: we have an undefeated filly running in Zenyatta, and a presumptive Horse of the Year running in Curlin. Unlike twenty years ago, we seldom speak of these division leaders in the same breath, and this year, twenty-four hours will separate their appearances on the racetrack.
Imagine what it must have been like on that cold, dreary, dark day at Churchill Downs in November of 1988, when race fans gathered, wondering whether they’d see Personal Ensign retire undefeated; whether they’d see the filly Derby winner take the Distaff; whether they’d see a filly or a colt capture Horse of the Year honors.
We could debate endlessly about the best Breeders’ Cup race of all time, but this one tops my list. I never get tired of watching it, never escape my initial ambivalence about the winner, and never cease to exult when Personal Ensign gets there first…though rather wishing that Winning Colors could have won it, too…