At the coldest and dreariest Breeders’ Cup in November 1988 at Churchill Downs, I was shivering in the infield because I had underdressed — even for November — and the wind sailing across the infield and blurring my vision as I tried to see Easy Goer race in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile was obviously a special breeze just shipped in from the North Pole.
That ill wind blew no good, especially for the chestnut son of Alydar. The combination of the muddy track, cold temperatures in the 40s, and a brutal wind chill showed that the Phipps Stable champion colt was not the same racer under those adverse circumstances that he proved when the sun was on his back at Belmont or Saratoga. Easy Goer finished second in BC Juvenile to the Raja Baba colt Is It True after starting the favorite at 30 cents to a dollar.
His unbeaten stablemate, the Private Account mare Personal Ensign, was not even that heavily favored to win the BC Distaff, in part because she faced Kentucky Derby winner Winning Colors and Kentucky Oaks winner Goodbye Halo.
Although the Goer’s bitter loss had dampened spirits of our group, which was gathered from parts as diverse as northern Ohio through Georgia, we still had much to hope for from the champion mare.
In the post parade, Personal Ensign looked her usual self, quite unimpressed with the massive crowd at the Downs braving the weather in warmer gear than a horse with only a saddle and a bridle. The tall, angular filly looked almost unsubstantial in comparison to the brawny Winning Colors, whose gray coat stood out in the dark conditions. The bay and the gray towered over the pretty chestnut Goodbye Halo.
Both Winning Colors and Goodbye Halo started well, with the Derby winner opening up in the first quarter to lead by four lengths, then maintaining her advantage over the field to the far turn. All the while Personal Ensign was not picking up ground, fully eight or nine lengths behind the leader over a track that had not been easy to close on.
All our group were big Personal Ensign fans, and as we had taken refuge in a portion of the grandstand with much better protection from the elements than the infield, another group nearby was loudly cheering for Winning Colors. As the gray turned into the stretch, the older mare “appeared hopelessly beaten three-eighths from the wire,” as trainer Shug McGaughey said shortly after the race.
Our mood was as dark and glum as the skies in Louisville.
Then Personal Ensign moved off the rail, began picking up horses bit by bit; a quarter-mile out, she looked like she wouldn’t be hopelessly beaten, as with every stride, Personal Ensign picked up ground till only Winning Colors and Goodbye Halo were ahead of her.
A furlong from home, the people nearby were almost headed to the windows because they were sure Winning Colors was home and hosed. But my friend Dave and I were getting really excited. We were watching the mare on the outside, the dark bay whose strides were longer than anyone else’s. The mare who was picking up a yard on the leaders with every stride.
By the time the horses reached the wire, Dave and I were berserk, jumping up and down and screaming like 10-year-old cheerleaders. I even had bruises on my arms the next day from something I had done in that rush of adrenalin.
Our nearest neighbors weren’t sure what to make of it, had gone silent as the field crossed the wire. Personal Ensign won the Distaff by a nose, and it was a big, dark bay nose with a tiny snip that made the long drive back to Lexington a lot warmer that night.
That mare just didn’t know how to lose.