LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Undefeated champion and Hall of Famer Personal Ensign has died at age 26.
The pensioned Private Account broodmare died Thursday in her pasture at Claiborne Farm in Paris, Ky., of natural causes, according to Claiborne.
Ogden Phipps bred and owned Personal Ensign, who was undefeated in 13 lifetime starts. Her victories included the 1988 Breeders' Cup Distaff, in which she ended her perfect career with an epic stretch battle with that year's Kentucky Derby winner, Winning Colors. Personal Ensign won by a nose while giving Winning Colors four pounds. She became the first top-class American racehorse to retire undefeated after a full racing career since Colin left the track with 15 wins in 1908.
Personal Ensign also won the Grade 1 Beldame in 1987 and 1988 as well as the 1986 Frizette and the 1988 Whitney, Hempstead, Shuvee and Maskette for her other Grade 1 wins. She also won the 1988 Molly Pitcher and 1987 Rare Perfume, both Grade 2 races.
Personal Ensign was voted into the National Museum of Racing's Hall of Fame in 1993, her first year of eligibility.
"She was easy, she never did overdo it," said her trainer, Shug McGaughey. "When I was first getting ready to run her, the girl who got on her told me how good she was. And I said, 'She goes a half in 50!' But the girl said, 'Well, she goes a half in 50 like no other horse has ever gone a half in 50.'"
Personal Ensign's race record was all the more amazing, considering that she had broken her right hind ankle at age 2 shortly after her Frizette victory on Oct. 18, 1986. "I was working her to take her to California for the Breeders' Cup," McGaughey recalled. "She breezed excellent that morning, and she cooled out, and when we went to get her out of the stall she couldn't walk."
Several days later at Dr. William Reed's hospital near Belmont Park, veterinary orthopedic surgeon Dr. Larry Bramlage put five screws in Personal Ensign's long pastern bone. She returned 11 months later, in September 1987, to win an allowance in her 3-year-old debut. McGaughey skipped the Breeders' Cup with Personal Ensign in 1987 and gave her seven months off.
She started her 4-year-old season by taking the Shuvee and Hempstead handicaps. McGaughey and Phipps contemplated running Personal Ensign in the Suburban but decided against it because they'd also entered her full brother Personal Flag in the race. On July 4, 1988, Personal Ensign took Monmouth's Molly Pitcher and Personal Flag won the Suburban.
"When we went to Louisville for the Breeders' Cup, I thought, 'She's beat all these things, there's no reason she shouldn't be OK again,'" McGaughey said. "She ran the race of her life that day. The one thing I remember was at the three-eighths pole, I thought it was all over."
Winning Colors had opened an early lead and looked unbeatable as the field headed for the wire, and Personal Ensign, under Randy Romero, appeared to be struggling on Churchill's sloppy track. She had cut an eight-length deficit to four by the eighth pole, but it looked like too little, too late.
"She usually started making her move around the half-mile pole and started gathering up horses in a hurry, but she didn't do that that day," McGaughey said. "She just kind of trudged along down the middle of the track. But finally she got there. Really, I thought she'd won easier than she did, but going down to the winner's circle, I looked up at the TV and saw she'd won by that short of a margin. I was pretty relieved, tell you the truth."
Personal Ensign left some tough, classy horses in her wake during her career. In addition to beating Winning Colors twice (in the Breeders' Cup Distaff and the Maskette), she also defeated eventual sprint champion Gulch and such Grade 1 winners or future Grade 1 winners as Chic Shirine, Clabber Girl, Coup de Fusil, Grecian Flight, King's Swan and Nastique.
"Personal Ensign was the first Breeders' Cup winner for my grandfather and for Shug, and she was just a very special horse to everyone in our family," said Phipps' granddaughter, Daisy Phipps Pulito.
After retiring to the breeding shed, Personal Ensign produced the Grade 1 winners My Flag, Miner's Mark and Traditionally, as well as Grade 1-placed Our Emblem. She also is the dam of Grade 2-placed Salute and Grade 3-placed Proud and True.
My Flag went on to become the dam of 2002 champion juvenile filly Storm Flag Flying, and Our Emblem sired 2002 Kentucky Derby winner and champion 3-year-old War Emblem.
Personal Ensign was named Broodmare of the Year in 1996.
Personal Ensign was a daughter of 1988 Broodmare of the Year Grecian Banner, by Hoist the Flag.
Personal Ensign's death comes within three weeks of the deaths of two other Grade 1 producers at Claiborne: Narrate, the 30-year-old dam of Preach and second dam of Pulpit and Tale of the Cat, and Highest Regard, the 33-year-old dam of Awe Inspiring.
All are buried at Claiborne's Marchmont cemetery.