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Posts Tagged ‘Oxford Minn.’

He was the undisputed King of harness racing’s Golden Era. But his real life was a far cry from the tall tales that framed it.

DAN PATCH in Chicago, 1905.

The issue that always confronts a researcher is the necessity of discerning fact from fiction. But when a horse is part legend and part enigma — and where the latter takes concrete form in publications, movies and an ocean of promotional material — even an experienced researcher can easily take the wrong turn and end up simply perpetuating the fiction.

 

 

The story of Dan Patch is such a case in point. He is, of course, beloved to a nation and to the sport of harness racing. But Dan’s life was so romanticized that ploughing through it all amounts to wading into the fraught waters where enigma reigns supreme. The whole “phenomena” of Dan Patch was as much the creation of his owners, trainers and the world in which he lived, as it was the story of a horse so brilliant that he was almost beyond human comprehension. In fact, sports writers whose sterling reputations preceded them, notably John Hervey, had great difficulty in representing that brilliance, that “something” that placed Dan Patch in the ethereal, making him seem more deity than horse.

Before we begin, I wanted to acknowledge Charles Leerhsen for his brilliant book, “Crazy Good: The True Story of Dan Patch, the Most Famous Horse in America.” And I do mean “brilliant.” This is a book that takes you on the most fascinating journey ever — into Dan’s world as it was at the turn of the last century. I’m not really a fan of non-fiction about famous horses (or people) for a number of reasons I won’t go into here. But in “Crazy Good” both the social and racing history are so absorbing that they risk obscuring the impeccible, meticulous research of the author.

I want to thank Mr. Leerhsen for setting me straight and for ripping the “veil of enigma” from Dan’s story in the kindest possible way. Which he did with humour, compassion and the elegant, rolling prose of an accomplished writer and storyteller.

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Dan Patch’s story begins with Zelica, his dam, a sweet-natured Standardbred mare who had a gimpy leg and was purchased as a 2 year-old at a sales dispersal by Dan’s first owner, dry goods merchant Daniel Messner, for the unheard-of sum of $255 (USD). It may have been competitiveness that pulled Messner’s switch, but he may also have been acting on his doctor advice that the best cure for his ailing stomach was a horse.

ZELICA as she appears circa 1907. Source: “Crazy Good” by Charles Leerhson.

When the townspeople of Oxford, Indianopolis, Messner’s home and the site of his store, heard what Messner had paid for the imperfect filly, they gave Zelica a new moniker: “Messner’s Folly.” Messner knew next to zero about horses but he stood up against those who laughed behind his back, driving Zelica around Oxford in a beautiful new harness and rig. By all accounts he genuinely was attached to his little filly, whose coat he kept gleaming as brightly as her silver-studded tack. Despite her limp, Zelica’s bloodlines were impeccible: by the stallion Wilkesbury, a descendant of champion George Wilkes, out of the mare Abdallah Belle by Pacing Abdallah, the filly carried Rysdyk’s Hambletonian on the top and bottom of her pedigree.

The Standardbred horse was officially recognized as a breed in 1879, based on a standard of time performance for one mile —2 minutes 30 seconds — from which the breed takes its name.

The stallion MESSENGER, by MAMBRINO, was imported to the USA shortly after the American Revolution. A thoroughbred, he is the progenitor of the American standardbred trotter although he also produced thoroughbreds.

While the Standardbred trotters all descended from the thoroughbred stallion, Messenger, the pacers emerged from a breed called the “Narragansett pacer,” fused with the bloodlines of another breed, the “Canuck” from Canada. Despite these different trajectories, both trotters and pacers trace back to Rysdyk’s Hambletonian, after which the Hambletonian race is named. (Interestingly, the Canuck, or Canadian horse were the foundation for the later development of the Morgan, American Saddlebred and Standardbred breeds. In vintage photographs of Standardbreds and Morgans, the contribution of the compact Canadian horse shines through.) Of paramount importance, however, is the fact that the Standardbred is America’s horse, born and bred for the first time ever in the USA.

Dan’s sire, Joe Patchen, stands in high contrast to the sweet and gentle Zelica in more ways than one. Joe Patchen, pilotted throughout most of his career by another harness racing legend, Edward F. “Pop” Geers, was sired by Patchen Wilkes, the grandson of Rysdyk’s Hambletonian. While he had been a fair-tempered colt, as a stallion Joe Patchen became so vicious that he was actually weighed down by chains in his stall to keep him under control. Ill-temperament, bordering on the manic, was a strong tendency in the descendants of Dan’s great grandsire, George Wilkes and Joe Patchen sure got dealt a bumper crop of nasty.

JOE PATCHEN, champion pacer but a vicious, ill-tempered sire.

It would seem that Dan Patch came about not as a result of a brilliant breeding decision made by Messner, but rather as the outcome of a drinking episode in which Dan Messner and his friend, John Wattles, a local farmer and livery stable owner, decided to drive Zelica to Joe Patchen — then standing in Chebanse, Illinois, some 40 miles away — to be bred (see quote from Ray Wattles’ manuscript in Leerhsen, “Crazy Good” ). So off they went to do the deed, driving Zelica there and then home again.

Fortunately for Messner, the colt foal who came into the world on Wednesday, April 29, 1896 received Zelica’s gentle temperament in the gene mix. However, the mahogany bay colt with black feet or “points,” as they were called then, was unable to stand at first. He had been born “crooked.” The advice of the onlookers was to put a hammer to his head, but Dan Messner resisted, instead helping to raise the little fellow to nurse. A few hours later, Dan stood on his own, wobbling badly at first. When the wobbling subsided, all present saw a handsome baby, with a beautiful head and strong body. Looking at Zelica’s colt foal, John Wattles claimed he said that if the little fellow “…grows into those legs he’ll be the fastest horse in the world.” Maybe he said it, maybe he didn’t. But if he did, it was probably an expression of pride rather than prophecy.

At about the same moment, Dan Messner decided to name the colt Dan Patchen, which had shortened to Dan Patch by the time Zelica’s son made his first start, the original name having been rejected by the American Trotting Register Association.

An early photo of DAN PATCH from “The Autobiography of Dan Patch” by Merton E. Harrison.

Harness racing was already well established before Dan was born: the first harness racing took place in the Americas in the 1700s. While trotting as a sport began in the East, pacing originated in the Midwest and the South — in the states of Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee. It took until the late 19th century for the pacers to gain the status of the trotting side of the family, despite the fact that it was harness racing and not thoroughbred racing that drew crowds to local fairs in the Midwest and the South. Although harness racing was the choice of owners of more modest means, even established farms like Calumet housed a string of Standardbred horses by the beginning of the last century.

During Dan’s racing days, harness racing took place in “heats” — a series of five one-mile races. The horse who took the majority of the five won. In a career of almost a decade, Dan Patch lost only two heats and won every race he ran.

When Dan Patch set foot on the track he would begin a campaign that single-handedly pulled pacers out of the charming fabric of town fairs and on to the national stage. But given the degree to which his talent was exploited for gain, one almost wishes he had stayed in Oxford, where he was cherished as a hero and beloved by all.

DAN PATCH was never defeated, although he lost two heats during his racing career.

 

Dan’s debut took place in 1900, when he was a four year-old.  Up until then, he was content to deliver dry goods from his owner’s store and was well on his way to becoming Oxford’s favourite equine.  His temperament was so remarkable that even tiny children could pet him or, as happened on days when he took the Messner family to some local event, run right under him or sit astride him, without incident.

The four-year old Dan Patch apparently stood at a strapping 15.3h, making him slightly taller than the average 15.2h standardbred of his day. It is shocking to realize that the giant of pacing was shorter than Northern Dancer! But, then again, if you look at ancestry, the even today the Canadian horse stands no taller than 15.4h. (NOTE: Various sources and one autobiographer, Merton E. Harrison, report Dan’s height as 16h. However, Charles Leerhsen appears to dispute this, giving the pacer’s height at 15.3h. This seems far more likely, given the meticulous research of the author and the size of other standardbreds of the time. All of which begs the question: Was Dan reported to stand 16h because he actually was or, or did it better suit the giant of a Standardbred pacer he became? )

My grandfather at Ormstown Fair in Quebec, Canada in the 1930s with his champion Standardbred mare. Grandpa barely reached 5 feet, showing the average size of a Standardbred even some 30 years into the last century.

DAN PATCH in 1906. He certainly appears to be closer to 15h3 than 16h here. Source: Minnesota Historical Society.

Getting Dan to the races had been a complex task for his trainer and driver, the elderly John Wattles. Although Dan got around on his delivery duties just fine, when hitched to a sulky his crooked hind leg splayed out, such that he kept banging it on the sulky wheel, or else he caught his left foreleg. The discomfort made it impossible to tell whether Dan had any real racing aptitude. Wattles designed a special sulky for him, one wider than the standard of the day, to correct the problem. Once unimpeded, Dan showed promise in the laps he did with Wattles on an old track near Oxford, but couldn’t really pick up the pace when asked. Off Wattles went to blacksmith Thomas Eleazor Fenton in the town of Pine Village, near Oxford. After hearing about Dan’s problem, Fenton, a wizard at helping horses “with issues,” designed a special shoe for Dan’s malformed left foot; returning to the track, Dan was able to pace and although his speed was nothing to write home about, Wattles was sure that would come in time. Dan was a natural-born pacer, one that would never need hobbles to keep him at a pace — although he would wear knee boots occasionally to protect his foreleg from the overreach of his hind — and that, together with his otherwise powerful frame, was part of his latent potential as a race horse.

Dan Patch had always been a bit of a goofball, but the day came when, on the old training track under the summer sun, the horse grabbed the bit, arched his neck and took Wattles on a mile pace of 2:14 minutes. Messner was there, holding the stopwatch.

It took little convincing to get him to see that Dan Patch had the makings of a fair ground winner.

DAN PATCH. Date unknown.

 

He made his debut at a country fair on August 30, 1900, in a best out of 5 heats race for pacers who had never gone a mile in 2:35. Dan had, of course, gone much faster with Wattles on the old training track near his home, but it was the trainer’s idea to start him off slowly, since Dan was green and even Wattles couldn’t tell how he’d handle all the noise and distractions of a fair grounds harness race. Green he was, but Dan’s remarkable ability was evident right from the start and he not only took his maiden, but two subsequent races at different fairs. In his second start, he lost a heat to Milo S. by a nose. This was the first of only 2 heats he would ever lose. And it was also at this initial stage that Dan moved himself into the 2:20 race category, having paced only a little over 2 seconds slower.

Wattles would have liked Dan to come along a little slower, but as he was learning, when he turned Dan around to make a start and once his horse got going, it was almost impossible to slow him down.

Film outtakes of DAN PATCH on the track. Source: “The Autobiography of Dan Patch,” by Merton E. Harrison.

At the close of 1900, as his horse returned home to Oxford and a hero’s welcome, Daniel Messner was determined to enter Dan in the 1901 Grand Circuit races for handicapped horses. Messner also decided that Dan needed a different trainer if he was to go up against other handicapped pacers.

Myron McHenry, one of the undisputed greats of harness racing, nicknamed “The Wizard of the Homestretch.” However, McHenry was also a wheeler-dealer and alcoholic, both of which landed him in serious trouble throughout his career.

To this end, he contacted Myron McHenry, a New York-based trainer. At first, McHenry was unwilling to take the colt. The trainer was a superstar, having trained and partnered Phoebe Wilkes, John R. Gentry and a “crooked-legged” filly he bred himself named Rose Croix, who had won the Kentucky Futurity, making McHenry the only man in history to breed, train and drive a Futurity winner. McHenry received many requests from small-town owners to train their horses and refused the vast majority. Too, the trainer doubted that Messner could afford what it took to run a horse in the Grand Circuit.

But Messner persisted and McHenry finally agreed to at least see the horse. So on May 13, 1901, Dan boarded a train to Cleveland to be introduced to McHenry. After taking the horse for a spin, McHenry agreed to take him on. McHenry may not have guessed the ride the handsome son of Joe Patchen had in store for him, but he had wanted the pacer since reading reports of his exploits the year before, modest as they were.

Harness racing was in its Golden Era when Dan came along and a superstar could routinely draw triple the attendance at a professional baseball game. And that meant money — and lots of it. The sport was rife with punters and sleazy types who made a profession of cheating the odds any way they could, including drugging horses with alcohol and cocaine. Races were set up to provide bettors-in-the-know with as much profit as they could squeeze out of a race. Drivers regularly slowed horses so that underdogs could win, despite the vigilance of the American Trotting Association (NTA).

DAN PATCH on a vintage postcard from 1910.

Myron McHenry wasn’t sleazy, but he was an opportunist. He saw in Dan Patch and his naiive owner all kinds of possibilities for making himself a tidy bundle. A consummate horseman and trainer, McHenry was also regularly involved in the kinds of disputes with owners that reduced his stable to only a few runners on a regular basis. As noted by Leerhsen, ” …Messner was a classic example of the kind of owner who stumbled into the lion’s den that was McHenry’s stable.”

Below, a remarkable short clip of Dan racing. Note the protective knee boots on his forelegs:

 

Dan made his first start under McHenry in Windsor, Ontario, Canada on July 10, 1901, in a race for 2:15 pacers that he won comfortably. Seven days later they were in Detroit, at the Grosse Point track, part of the Grand Circuit. And he won again. Then came Cleveland, Columbus and Buffalo; in Buffalo, Dan floated home, pacing the last quarter mile in 30 sec. flat. McHenry declared the pacer the best he had ever raced — and that made sports headlines, as did most of what McHenry did. He was, after all, as much a superstar as his pacer was becoming.

DAN PATCH and McHenry. Here, the champion is shown wearing knee boots. Source: The Minnesota Historical Society.

In the same year, in a training session before a race in Lexington, Kentucky, McHenry found Dan somewhat “sloppy” and slow. He determined that the 5 year-old was off-balance. Taking him to a blacksmith of reputation, who had shoed greats like Lou Dillon, McHenry asked Philander Nash to shorten Dan’s toes on the front, but leave the rear of the hoof alone. Nash did as he was told and when he was done the feeling for Dan must have been rather like walking around in high-heel shoes. But the improvement on the track was immediate and Dan won his race — as he always did.

Somewhere along the timeline of 1901 or perhaps early in 1902, Myron McHenry hooked up with Manley E. Sturges, a New York casino owner and wheeler-dealer. The two hit upon a plan: they would buy Dan Patch from Daniel Messner and then re-sell him as quickly as they could for a much larger sum.

DAN PATCH appears within a frame that includes cameos of Myron McHenry and M.E. Sturges (note: the Sturges name is mispelled here, as happened frequently).

The trouble was: Messner wasn’t selling. He refused Sturges’ offer of $20,000 USD more than once and said offer was a handsome amount in 1901. Simply put, to his owner Dan was family. Messner owned his dam and had bred Dan in 1898/1899 to John Wattles’ good mare, Oxford Girl (sire and dam unknown) to produce a beautiful coal-black filly he named Lady Patch. In 1902, Lady Patch shared a stable with her sire and granddam, Zelica. As well, to the townspeople of Oxford, Dan Patch was their greatest son, the horse that had “put them on the map.” He was the feature of the annual “Dan Patch Day” and a local, one James W. Steele, had even written him his own song, the “Dan Patch Two-Step.” (Note: Not the one that usually appears on video footage or for sale. Steele’s original score, sadly, has been lost.)

Then, in 1902, Messner became the victim of an escalating harassment campaign. It began with the appearance of several well-dressed men who warned him against refusing Sturges’ offer, while never using the New Yorker’s name directly. It culminated with the poisoning and death of Lady Patch, in her stall in Oxford. (It should be noted, however, that some Dan Patch researchers are of the opinion that the filly was poisoned by “some jealous person,” i.e. “jealous of Messner’s success. In other words, not Sturges’ henchman. Regardless, when his filly’s death was declared no accident, Daniel Messner became frightened for Dan’s safety. Shortly thereafter, he sold his beloved Dan to Manley E. Sturges for $20,000.

When the door of the car that would transport Dan opened, it was Myron McHenry who stepped down to take the pacer away from the only home he had ever known and the people who loved him best of all. (McHenry, if not a full partner with Sturges, certainly was cut handsomely into the deal.)

“DAN PATCH BARN” in Oxford, Minnesota is still standing to this day. It is one of the few artefacts related to DAN PATCH that remain extant.

The day Dan left Oxford (IN) forever, almost the whole town turned out at the train station. Among those absent was John Wattles, Dan’s first trainer.

Dan’s campaign in 1902 was as much about advertising his greatness as it was about anything else. With McHenry at the reins, he again raced the Grand Circuit. The aim was to equal or take down the standing record for the mile of 1:59 1/4 , set by pacer Star Pointer in 1897, while making as much money as possible along the way. However, the fact that Dan was still undefeated made it necessary for many tracks to remove him from the betting altogether. This, of course, also interfered with any additional revenue that McHenry and Sturges could make.

The pacer STAR POINTER, who set the record for the fastest mile of 1:59 1/4 in 1897.

Racing again at Windsor, Grosse Point and Cleveland, Dan won in times of 2:06 1/2, 2:05 and 2:03 3/4 respectively. But winning purses were modest as far as McHenry and Sturges were concerned. Campaigning their shining star was only lucrative if they could find a way to milk even more profit out of him.

DAN PATCH at work. Date unknown. Source: Minnesota Historical Society.

McHenry hit upon the idea that they could make more profit if Dan raced against the clock in time trials along the Grand Circuit. Neither McHenry nor Sturges were doing well financially with Dan — and they were anxious to “flip him” and make the huge profit they anticipated. Remember: 1902 is the world before the automobile completely takes over the hearts and minds of America, and harness racing was the king of popular sport.

Dan Patch was a “name” that drew crowds in the thousands and the shrewd McHenry was certain there was a rich man out there who would want his name associated with such a celebrity.

DAN PATCH was a beauty. Shown here with Myron McHenry. Date unknown.

And, in fact, there was: Marion Willis Savage of the International Stock Food Company of Minneapolis and Hamilton (later to be re-named Savage), Minnesota.

Over the next several months, the kindly Dan was put to the test, pulling off fractions like :31 seconds for a quarter mile on tracks in Colombus, Brighton Beach and Readville until, on August 29, 1902, he beat Star Pointer’s record by 1/4 of a second. Returning to Readville, having had his shoes re-done and caulked by Philander Nash, Dan was clocked at 1: 59 1/4  — although McHenry was insistent that the correct time was really 1:59 and left the track infuriated.

Enter Mr. Savage.

The narrator of this rare footage is harness racing HOF, Delvin Glen “Del” Miller, a driver, trainer and owner who is also well-known for his contribution to the breed through the mighty stallion Adios, one of the most important foundation sires of the modern Standardbred. Adios stood at Miller’s Meadow Lands Farm in Pennsylvania. Miller was also the founder of The Meadows Racetrack in Meadow Lands, Penn. which is still in existence today, known as “The Meadows Racetrack and Casino.” In 1997 the Adios Pace was officially renamed the Delvin Miller Adios Pace in Del’s honor.

Dan’s new owner was a complex man. Despite Del Miller’s positive, if measured, words about Marion Willis Savage, the man who took ownership of Dan in 1903 for $60,000 USD was another wheeler-dealer, albeit of a different order from McHenry and Sturges. However, as the rise of the automobile overtook the horse and as car races replaced horse races in America, it was Savage who assured the legacy and legend of Dan Patch for posterity. In fact, horse and man live on in symbiotic relationship –just as Savage assured Dan’s place in American racing history and culture, so his affiliation with the champion assured that his own name would live on.

 

DAN PATCH with his third and final owner, Marion Willis Savage.

It would have been romantic had Savage been driven to enshrine Dan Patch in America’s cultural ethos because he understood his horse was one of “the greats.” But he didn’t.

Savage had tried his hand at two agriculture-related businesses before arriving in Minneapolis, where he set up the International Stock Foods Company. Its key product was a food supplement that made claims of fattening up livestock. Marketed as “3 Feeds For One Cent,” it quickly became a best seller, largely because of Savage’s decided gift for advertising. In this regard, Savage could rightly be called a visionary.

Ironically, despite the nature of his business, Savage knew very little about horses. To the businessman, none of that mattered. He had purchased a commodity in Dan Patch, one that would make both his company and himself famous.

“3 Feeds For One Cent” was Savage’s main product, a supplement to fatten up livestock. Postcard, circa 1899.

As his chief promoter, Savage unintentionally gave Dan Patch a national audience who would assure his dominance in the annals of harness racing history, career records aside. So many stars of the late 19th-early 20th centuries have largely been forgotten: Sleepy Tom, Flora Temple, Alix, Star Pointer, Dexter, Axtell, Pocahontas, Lou Dillon, Goldsmith Maid, Axworthy, Volomite, Ethan Allen, Hamburg Belle, Jay-Eye-See, Nancy Hanks and a host of others. Had they had Marion Willis Savage as their agent, their march through time might well have been different.

DEXTER.

NANCY HANKS.

FLORA TEMPLE.

Despite knowing little or nothing about horses, Savage had progessive views about keeping Dan and the other horses he acquired well within themselves. At his grandiose stables in Hamilton/Savage (Minn) the stalls were bright and airy. The facilities included both an indoor and outdoor training track, as seen in the Del Miller footage [above]. The stables were indeed palatial — and the round tower that dominated them led people to re-name them the “Taj Mahal.”

International Stock Food Farm, aka The Taj Mahal, and its main stables in Hamilton/Savage, Minnesota. Postcard.

But when the brilliant and sweet-natured Dan arrived in Minneapolis to waiting throngs, he couldn’t have known that his life story was about to change still again. The change was such that we couldn’t help but think of the story of Black Beauty. Except that, unlike Anna Sewell’s classic, there was no rescue. No riding-off-into-the-sunset clause — Dan Patch had been bought as a marketing commodity for the International Stock Foods Company, and his treatment until the end of his days was anything but kind.

During the Savage years, Dan was moved from city to city on a tight schedule that took no account of what was best for the horse, who was beginning to show his age. But Dan was an individual who would always give his best when asked, and for a time, from 1903-1906, he did just that. Running in time trials all around the country, accompanied by pacemakers to keep him interested and honest, the champion set new track records.

In 1903, Dan broke the world record at Brighton Beach, pacing a mile in 1:59 despite cold and windy conditions. At McHenry’s urging, Dan paced the final quarter mile in under 30 seconds.

In Lexington that same year, the 7 year-old broke the existing record for pacing while attached to a wagon (instead of the lighter, more aerodynamic sulky) by over two seconds. In the meantime, McHenry was beginning to worry about the pacer, who he felt was exhausted. However, another pacer called Prince Alert had taken down Dan’s 1:59 and Savage was determined that Dan get it back before closing out the 1903 season.

So, a week after Lexington, McHenry and Dan were in Memphis, where the champion with the big heart and the courage to match it regained the one mile record from Prince Alert with a time of 1:56​14.  Dan’s performance was so dramatic that it made the front page of the New York Times.

Newspapers around the country carried the story of DAN PATCH’S 1:56 1/4 mile — a new world’s record.

Extending their stay in Memphis, Dan set two additional world records: in the first trial, he lowered the record for the half mile from 57​12 seconds to 56 seconds. In the second, run 45 minutes later and pacing again hitched to a wagon, Dan bested his own record from 1:59​14 to 1:57​14.

1905. DAN PATCH (inside)with one of his pacesetters, warming up before setting his Memphis record.

By 1904 Savage and McHenry had parted company. This was really no surprise. Both men were determined types, used to getting their own way. But only one knew that Dan was being overworked and that, despite his gallant heart, the pacer was showing signs of gearing down: whatever else one said about Myron McHenry, the man knew the great Dan Patch very, very well.

DAN PATCH paced the mile in 1:56 in Memphis in 1904.

Stepping into his place was Harry Hersey, a kind and caring man who was a Savage employee with scant driving experience. This move effectively put Marion Savage completely in charge of Dan’s training and appearance schedule. In other words, Dan no longer had anyone to speak on his behalf to his ambitious owner, as McHenry tried — and usually failed — to do.

DAN PATCH with Harry Hersey. Date unknown.

As it turned out, Hersey would eventually quit too, disheartened and angered by Savage’s overriding of what was best for Dan and the other horses in his stable. In September of 1904, with Hersey as his driver, Dan Patch came close to dying of what was initially diagnosed as a strangulated hernia, but later determined to be an impacted bowel. Savage hurried to his dying superstar and would later say that it was Imported Stock Foods colic medicine that had saved him. But that was, of course, completely untrue. A few days later, when Dan could still barely stand, Savage ordered him to be paraded before his fans in Topeka before being shipped back home, where he was given a brief time off. This must have gotten to Hersey, as it did Dan’s head lad, Charlie Plummer, whose job it was to travel with Dan and who slept in his charge’s stall when they were on the road. Dan was back in action a few weeks later, in October.

British-born Charlie Plummer with DAN PATCH. Charlie was DAN’S head lad during most of the Savage years.

Dan Patch celebrated his ninth birthday in 1905, an age at which racehorses, even in the rollicking early years of the last century, were thought past their prime. Even though it was foolish to expect anything great from an ageing pacer, Dan was still greeted like a king everywhere that his travelling roadshow went. Certainly, he arrived like one in his very own elaborately-decorated coach. And it was the year that Dan, with Hersey driving, would set his official record of 1:55 1/4 , which he did in Lexington, Kentucky. The record would stand for 30 years.

DAN PATCH arrived at his appearances by rail, in his own elaborately outfitted railway car. Shown here with his considerable stable of caregivers.

 

1905. DAN PATCH (inside)with one of his pacesetters, warming up before setting his Memphis record.

It would have been the perfect moment to retire the great Dan Patch. It has been estimated that Savage made about two million USD from Dan’s appearances, products — including his own — that carried Dan’s image or name or both, and stud fees (Savage bred Dan during the breeding season each year, a practice not uncommon at the time).

Dan had set his breathtaking world record for the mile with the help of his pacesetters and an equipment addition called a “wind shield” that Savage et al. had been using. (The wind shield or wind screen was affixed to the back of the sulky of one of Dan’s pacesetters to cut down on wind resistance.) However, in 1906 the National Trotting Association (NTA) banned the use of the wind shield, although they did allow Dan Patch’s 1905 record to stand. Officially, then, Dan’s best mile was 1:55​14.

Unofficially, his best time was 1:55, paced in September 1906 at the Minnesota State Fair. However, ignoring the ban on wind shields, one was mounted on a pacesetter and because of this, the NTA never officially recognized the time. (An incensed Savage was so indignant about the NTA’s decision that he renamed his International Stock Food Farm the “International 1:55 Stock Food Farm.” Savage also continued to advertise Dan’s 1:55 in publicity for his products and promotion of Dan Patch progeny.

DAN PATCH and Harry Hersey setting the 1:55 world record.

 

In 1906 at the Minnesota State Fair, DAN PATCH set the unofficial record of 1:55. He is pictured here following his run. DAN was now 10 years old.

 

During the three intervening years before his retirement, Dan Patch continued a rigorous schedule of appearances around the country, but crowds began to shrink and the champion was no longer able to best his own best. Too, the automoble was progessively taking over North America and this mark of progress would have a permanent impact on both standardbred and thoroughbred racing. In still another sense, America had tired of seeing the grand old man of pacing. Savage may have been a genius of a salesman, but he knew little of the price of over-exposure.

Portrait of DAN PATCH by George Ford Morris.

Dan Patch retired undefeated, having paced over 80 times in races and time trials and holding nine world records.

Of his stud career, success was moderate, but Dan never produced anything even close to himself. The mares he received weren’t the best, largely because Minneapolis was too far away from the centre of breeding in Lexington. However, the champion sired 38 trotters who met the 2m:30s standard and one who broke the 2:10 barrier. He also sired 138 pacers who met the standard, 5 of whom broke the 2:05 barrier. Dazzle Patch was his most successful son, but died prematurely, leaving only a few progeny. Dan Patch’s name is rare in modern pedigrees.

DAN PATCH (outside)and his son, DAZZLE PATCH.

His most famous descendant is the Hall of Fame pacer, Jate Lobell aka “Jate The Great,” who traces back to Dan Patch’s daughter, Theda Patch, in the 5th generation of his female family.

Jate retired as the third richest pacer of all-time and was syndicated for a cool 12 million. He sired 15 offspring who went the mile in 1:50 another 496 who paced it in 1:55, with 296 winners of 100k, and total earnings of over $105 million. Millionaires Cane Pace, Riyadh, David’s Pass, Gothic Dream and Village Jasper were his best. As a broodmare sire, Jate Lobell is credited with total earnings of over $205 million, with 553 $100,000 winners and 12 millionaires. They include world champions Mister Big ($4,008,257), My Little Dragon ($2,318,623), Southwind Lynx ($1,763,389) and, most recently, 2010 North America Cup winner Sportswriter ($1,566,460).

JATE LOBELL, champion pacer and sire of champions. JATE carries THEDA PATCH (DAN PATCH) in the 5th generation of his female family. He is DAN PATCH’S most brilliant descendant. JATE LOBELL Died in 2015.

A mere seven years after retirement, on July 11, 1916 at 10:00 a.m., Dan Patch collapsed and died of an apparent heart attack. In the seconds that remained of his life, Dan moved his legs in a pace.

Owner, Willis Marion Savage died 36 hours later in hospital of a pulmonary embolism, following routine surgery for hemorrhoids. His plans to have the greatest Standardbred of the early decades of the last century, and one of the greatest who ever lived, stuffed and mounted were called off following Savage’s death. The horses of the International Stock Food Farm were dispersed and Dan Patch was laid to rest in an unmarked grave near the river on the property.

Savage died a seriously indebted man and the family — his wife and two sons — struggled to fend off debt collectors for the rest of their days.

Dan Patch’s grave has never been found.

 

A tombstone in memory of DAN is found in his hometown of Oxford, Indiana. But his actual burial site in Savage, Minnesota on the site of the International Stock Foods Farm has never been found.

 

 

BONUS FOOTAGE:

1) Champion ADIOS

2) VOLOMITE and other champions of the past. Rare footage

 

3) JATE LOBELL — final heat of the 1987 North American Cup

4) JATE LOBELL at the Meadowlands, 1987

 

Selected Bibliography

Harrison,Merton E. The Autobiography of Dan Patch. St. Paul, Minn: Webb Publishing Co., 1912

Leerhsen, Charles. Crazy Good: The True Story of Dan Patch, the Most Famous Horse in America. New York: Simon and Shuster, 2018

NY TIMES Archives. Dan Patch Beat Record: Great Pacer Lowered World’s Mile Time to 1:59 at Brighton. August 20, 1903

— New Records For Dan Patch. December 1, 1903

Waite, Gerald. Dan Patch. Indiana Historical Society

The Dan Patch Historical Society: http://www.danpatWaite, Gerald. Dan Patch. Indiana Historical Societych.com

The Dan Patch Project: http://danpatchproject.org

The Harness Racing Museum: https://harnessmuseum.com

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