Understand this: I was touched by the crowd (in Saratoga) reaction to Rachel Alexandra’s first defeat this past Sunday. She lost, but only because of the distance.

The 2009 Horse of the Year and 2-5 favorite, winner of last year’s Woodward Stakes, had just finished second to a long shot named Persistently in the Personal Ensign.

She was racing in the longest race of her career…and it was a bit too far, I thought.

Nevertheless, she was ahead until she was caught at the wire.

Fans from the crowd of 23,347 still greeted her with smatterings of applause.

No wonder they call Saratoga the Graveyard of Favorites.

But even in defeat, Rachel Alexandra remained a fan favorite.

Not with me, at least.

You can go through the directory of great horses from A.P. Indy to Zenyatta and find horses that not only won, but were universally beloved.

Rachel Alexandra joins that list.

Then there are the titans the horse racing world over whose legend was formed in Saratoga.

Like Secretariat. He won three of four starts in Saratoga.

Or Man o’ War and Whirlaway. Native Dancer.

Of course, there are cases of lovable losers. There’s Zippy Chippy, the gelding that went 0-for-100 in his career and is now pensioned in Greenfield Center.

More often than not, fans’ passion for a horse can peak and ebb from race to race.

Then there are the now-and-forever favorites. Rachel Alexandra lost on Sunday. One race is not going to change the hearts of so many who view this horse as something very, very special.

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