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Hillary and Big Brown: The Inevitables

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Hey, Hillary Clinton, there you were above the fold on the front page of the Sunday New York Times with Big Brown, your equine equivalent, also pictured on the page in color. And you looked like a winner, Senator.

Both Clinton and Big Brown were beautifully groomed and considered "inevitable" winners of their races for the Democratic party presidential nomination and the Belmont Stakes. The stakes were as high as they come: becoming the first woman in American history to win the political prize versus the first horse to win the coveted Triple Crown in three decades.

But one came in a close second in her race and the other was dead last. So much for sure things in politics and horse racing. Pundits and gamblers, take note: life isn't yet as predictable as it seems.

Hillary Clinton did nothing to dispel the illusion her advisers created at the get-go, that there was no way she could lose. "I'm in to win it," she said then and again, many times. She contradicted CBS News anchor Katie Couric early on when Couric said the word "if" when it came to her winning the primary. There were no ifs, said she. "It will be me," she stated serenely.

The battle plans were laid for a fast finish in February, but Clinton's advisers overlooked key things like caucuses and Internet fundraising. Her commander-in-chief pose and foolish pride never let her take back her deeply flawed vote on the Iraq War authorization.

Like everyone, she probably expected Bill Clinton, the former two-term president, to continue to play the senior statesman on the world stage, instead of alienating party luminaries like Sen. Edward Kennedy and Rep. James Clayburn with unbecoming shouting matches. A Clinton operation was something it's never been before -- outsmarted.

In February, at a crucial curve in the race, a graceful, speedy candidate with an unlikely life story, Barack Obama, started to overtake her, with the wind of Kennedy's endorsement at his back. Despite winning New Hampshire, Clinton always looked at least a length behind Obama.

Gone was the air of regal entitlement. Voters liked Clinton better as a scrappy contender who campaigned her heart out and won some big states like Ohio and Pennsylvania as the race approached the finish. Good for her, going out to Mount Rushmore for the South Dakota primary. Clinton closed in as if to catch Obama, but in the end he had something that hubris had prevented her from actively seeking -- superdelegate support. An "inevitable" candidate doesn't have to ask to receive that kind of support.

Similarly, Big Brown's people didn't do the public any favors with their fervent smugness, acting like the bay horse was a done deal for the Triple Crown.

"Anybody that has ever touched him, seen him, had anything to do with him, are the luckiest people in the world," said his trainer, Rick Dutrow, after the horse won the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore.

With all that build-up, languid Big Brown wasn't interested in running the day of the Belmont Stakes. It was amazing to see how little he lived up to the universally breathless expectations of the media and the racing world.

Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, gave as good as she got. In her concession speech, she spoke of the "18 million cracks" in the so-called glass ceiling -- a metaphor given additional resonance as she stood under the loftiest ceiling in Washington in the 100-feet-tall National Building Museum.

When you consider that women won the right to vote only 88 years ago, Clinton has done the world some good by running so well. The picture of her on The Times front page is the best I've ever seen fit to print. She had a real smile that showed wistfulness mixed with an unbeaten spirit.

Never did she look more like a winner than in losing.

Jamie Stiehm is a political journalist in Washington.