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Friday, April 16, 2010

Tribute to a Great Horse

April 15, 2010
By Charlie Scoggin, DVM, MS

My contribution to this week’s blog is not what I really had in mind when I began to write it. Because of the significance of this date to most Americans, I was prepared to write a sardonic and satirical piece on my opinion of paying income taxes. However, the death of Personal Ensign on April 8 struck a nerve deep inside of me and is thus the impetus for my entry.

To begin, I will confess that one of my biggest fears on the farm was the day that I would get a call saying that Personal Ensign was down and suffering, and I needed to come as quickly as possible to evaluate her. I can’t tell you how many times I played that scenario over in my head, brooding over how I was going to react and what I was going to do. Despite all this anxiety, I should have known that she would leave this world in the most dignified manner possible . . . and she did. She lied down peacefully in a green pasture and passed away. There was no evidence of a struggle, no signs of trauma, and—most importantly—no signs of suffering. She chose to leave on her own terms, which is perhaps the most fitting ending for this larger-than-life figure.

I’m sure there are many of you who know or have heard of Personal Ensign. For those that do not or have not, I’ll quickly share with you some of the highlights that I found when I used my favorite search engine, typed in “Personal Ensign” and hit “search.”

  • Winner of ten graded stakes races—eight of which were Grade I’s.
  • Winner of the 1988 Breeders’ Cup Distaff in which she put in one of the greatest closing charges of all time.
  • Undefeated in thirteen career starts—eleven of those wins coming after she had five screws placed in the left hind first phalanx after fracturing this bone during a training session.
  • Honored as the 1996 broodmare of the year after retirement from her racing career.
  • Dame of nine winners—three of which were Grade I winners, including My Flag who won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies in 1995 and then produced Storm Flag Flying, winner of the 2002 Breeders Cup Juvenile Fillies. That’s three generations of Breeders’ Cup winners.

I could have easily tripled this list of accomplishments after reading all the stories about her. Her success as both a racehorse and broodmare made her the ultimate dual threat. If you think about it, there aren’t too many Thoroughbreds that excelled as both athletes and producers of athletes. Sure, you’ve got horses such as Seattle Slew, Unbridled, A.P. Indy, and Tiznow who performed well both on the track and in the breeding shed. However, none of these horses won 13 straight races and retired undefeated; moreover, their annual foal crop was (or is) anywhere from 50-150 horses per year. For these reasons, I find Personal Ensign’s lifetime achievements all the more remarkable.

With all that said, though, there was still something more about her that made her so special. In talking to people around the farm that knew her, some of the more common phrases used to describe her were “tough as nails,” “an overwhelming presence,” and “one of a kind.” To say she was tough would be an understatement—she won eleven straight races after sustaining a severe phalangeal fracture, and she managed to overcome a life-threatening foaling injury that most any other horse would have succumbed to. Her sense of presence was on display any time you were around her. She knew she was somebody, and she always held her head up high, seemingly in-tune with all her surroundings. That she was one of a kind was clearly evident by her race record and reproductive career.

As a tangent to this notion, you could also say she was highly individualistic. She rarely traveled with other horses in the pasture, instead choosing to graze by herself. Also, I could rarely get close enough to lay my hands on her. The times that I tried, I would maybe get a few yards from her, and then—quick as lightning—she’d turn, kick up her heels, and gallop away like she was 4 years old again. Perhaps this individualism was also the reason why she never let another horse cross the finish line before her.

After all this praise, you’d think I had some intimate bond with this mare. To be completely honest, though, I did not spend a lot of time around Personal Ensign. She was long since retired from broodmare duty by the time I arrived on the farm, and she spent all of her time in pasture with the rest of the retired mares. On a rare occasion, I did get to breathe the same air as her, but those times were few and far between and only out of necessity. However, her passing gave me pause and stirred something deep inside of me. Maybe it was all the articles I read that detailed her accomplishments; maybe it was watching her previous races where her unequaled perseverance was constantly on display; or maybe it was the outpouring of responses our farm received from people expressing their condolences and describing such heartfelt feelings about the life of this mare.

More than anything, I guess what really moved me was that I didn’t appreciate her as much as I should have while she was here at the farm. I think I took her for granted, which is actually fairly depressing. I also have feelings of jealousy in that I never had the opportunity to do a new foal exam on one of her babies, pronounce her in foal, or treat her for some type of ailment. If I would have had just one of those opportunities—and knowing what I know now—I would have savored every moment of it, knowing that I was truly in the presence of greatness.

Yesterday, I went to visit Personal Ensign’s gravesite. I didn’t spend a lot of time there, and I didn’t do anything symbolic or memorable. I just stood over it and smiled, realizing that this moment was the closest I got to her without someone holding her. I also realized how lucky I am to be working at the farm that will serve as her permanent resting site. As such, I can perhaps overcome my feelings of regret by periodically visiting her grave and reflecting back on her life.

Writing this piece has given me the opportunity to celebrate Personal Ensign’s life. Moreover, it serves as an affirmation that I now truly appreciate her—what she accomplished and what she stood for. Aristotle was quoted as saying, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act but a habit.” In my opinion, this quote succinctly yet adequately embodies and describes the life of Personal Ensign, for she was the epitome of excellence.

Rest in peace, Personal Ensign (1984-2010).

A special thanks to Dell Hancock for sharing her private photos of Personal Ensign, taken in the fall of 2009 at Claiborne Farm.

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