Excerpted from Crazy Good: The True Story of Dan Patch, the Most Famous Horse in America, by Charles Leerhsen (Simon & Schuster, June 2008). © 2008 by Charles Leerhsen
Harness horses have not made front-page headlines across the nation since fast food meant oysters and fat people populated porn. Racehorses of any ilk don't linger in the mass media these days unless they have terribly cute names or sad stories involving shattered cannon bones or kids with cancer. The sports and pop-cultural paradigms have shifted so radically that it is difficult to wrap one's mind around the truth: A harness horse; a pacer named Dan Patch, was the most celebrated American sports figure in the first decade of the 20th century, as popular in his day as any athlete who has ever lived.
The crowd rose as one to stare at the horse, and the horse, as was his custom, stared back.
It was 4:35 p.m. on Oct. 7, 1905, a brilliant fall Thursday at the Breeders Track in Lexington, Ky., and Dan Patch, a big mahogany-brown pacer, had just finished an attempt to lower his own world record for the mile. He was still blowing hard, but after wheeling around and jogging back to the finish line -- on his own, with no guidance or encouragement from the small, mustachioed man sitting in the racing sulky behind him -- he had come to a dead stop and, with his head cocked slightly to the left, was slowly surveying the assembled throng.
This was a trademark move, something he did not do automatically, like a circus animal mindlessly performing a trick, but often enough when the mood struck. People waited for it and felt they had gotten their money's worth when it came. Dan Patch's fans used to say -- when they talked about him in taverns and barbershops and at dinner tables all over America -- that the horse liked to count the house.
A dramatic silence fell over the scene. An official clocking would come down from the judges at any moment, and a quarter of a second either way could mean the difference between the front page and the sports section. Had Dan done the impossible once again? In the press area a finger hovered above a telegraph key.
From where the horse stood he could hear the three timers in the judges' stand, a few feet behind and about 20 feet above him, murmuring confidentially as they consulted their chronographs; if their individual hand-timings differed, as they might easily by a fraction of a second, they would have to reach a consensus on an official clocking. In an age when horse speed, and the mile record in particular, mattered to a mass audience, these racing judges were men of gravitas, doing important work. They wore suits and ties and natty straw boaters. They hefted 17-jewel stopwatches that had the power to transform a day at the races into a historic event. If Dan Patch had gone as fast as some in the packed grandstand guessed he had, everyone there would have a story to tell, maybe for the rest of his life. Tens of thousands who weren't there would also claim to have seen him power down the homestretch of the perfectly manicured red-clay racetrack in the lengthening autumn shadows.
Seconds ticked by, tension increased, but the horse, as a reporter said later, was "the calmest person on the grounds." Nine years old and at his physical peak, Dan Patch stood at almost the midpoint of a long career spent, for the most part, touring the country in a plush private railroad car and putting on exhibitions of speed. He knew the drill: First there was the Effort, the race against the clock, one mile in distance, with the galloping prompters to urge him on and stir his competitive spirit. Then there was the Silence, as judges checked their watches. After the Silence came either the Roar (a world record!) or the Sigh (alas, not this time). The Roar invariably involved flying hats and a surging wave of well-wishers.
Dan Patch preferred the Roar. Which was odd; why would a horse choose hysteria over a quiet walk back to the barn? What did he care about world records and the endless hype? The preference wasn't horselike. Dan Patch was an odd horse.
He was different, in fact, to a degree that experienced horse handlers found amazing, even hateful (jealousy being a big part of the racing game). For example, though stallions tend to be skittish, lashing out with teeth and hooves at the slightest provocation, Dan Patch -- an intact male who had already shown he had no problems in the breeding shed -- exuded calm, allowing strangers to approach him and small children to run back and forth beneath his belly. He wasn't frightened of the world human beings had made. He trusted -- a quality humans found terribly flattering and loved him for. As for the racing and touring, he seemed to get it, to understand that his job was to be this new thing in America: a superstar. Whenever he saw a photographer, he stopped.
That evening in Lexington, Dan Patch would be led into the lobby of the Phoenix Hotel, where happy drunks would pat his nose and perfumed women would want to nuzzle. Fans sometimes pulled hair from his tail to twist into key chains or put into lockets; in such cases Dan might spin his handsome head around and cast a sharp glance, but he never kicked. He had an admirable sense of his own might and others' vulnerability. The only person Dan Patch ever bit was a young Minnesota boy named Fred Sasse who would grow up to write an appallingly sycophantic book about him, The Dan Patch Story. You just had to love a horse like this.
And people did. They turned out to see him -- 80,000, 90,000, 100,000 strong, usually paying $1 admission, a day's wage for the average Edwardian Joe, to see him race other horses (he was undefeated) or, better yet, go against the clock. Sometimes when Dan would amble out, unannounced, for a few warmup laps hours before he was scheduled to compete, the crowd would erupt in a sustained huzzah that would not subside until he headed off 20 minutes later -- sometimes but not always taking a little bow at the top of the exit ramp, stirring up his fans even further. Teddy Roosevelt, the U.S. President during Dan's prime, bragged about having a Dan Patch horseshoe at his home in Oyster Bay, Long Island. ("A gift from his owner," Roosevelt wrote, "from the race in which he broke the two-minute mile!") The actress Lillie Langtry visited Dan in his gleaming-white, custom-built railroad car with his almost-life-sized picture emblazoned across both sides; as famous as "the Jersey Lily" was (mostly for being the mistress of both the future King Edward VII and his nephew Prince Louis of Battenberg), the meeting meant more for her career than for his.
On days when the horse wasn't performing, people would wait in line for hours just to see him standing in his stall, sometimes looking less than regal with his pet rat terrier perched atop his head. Dwight Eisenhower recalled queuing up with his parents to see Dan at the Kansas State Fair in 1904; Harry Truman, in his postpresidential dotage, remembered sending Dan a fan letter in his youth.
People exaggerated their connection to the horse to make themselves seem more important, or better human beings. A common boast in the 1920s, '30s and '40s -- a kind of urban myth comparable with saying you were at Wrigley Field when Babe Ruth hit his famous "called shot" home run -- was to say you were once at a racetrack someplace, leaning on the fence and watching Dan Patch warm up, when his trainer drove the horse over, picked you out of the crowd and asked if you'd like to take ole Danny Boy for a spin. (Some said they jumped at the chance to sit behind him in the sulky; others, unwilling to weave a more tangled web, claimed to have demurred.) In their obituaries, many men who had never met Dan Patch -- or who had perhaps only the slightest connection to him, having mucked out the stall next to his at a state fair one morning, say -- were identified as his trainer, owner, breeder, horseshoer or groom, their impressive fibs following them to the grave.
An early author of self-help manuals, Harry Heffner, published a pamphlet in 1923 called Dan Patch: The Story of a Winner, in which he revealed how to become a more effective businessperson, friend, spouse and Christian by acquiring the virtues of the by-then-deceased horse. In the introduction to a book called The Autobiography of Dan Patch, written by a publicist named Merton E. Harrison and published in 1911, the author says, "The work of his caretakers, trainers and drivers has always been high class, but it has always been supplemented by the self-esteem, the care and thoughtfulness of the horse himself. Dan Patch has come to be spoken of as 'the horse that knows.' "
Everyone knew his story: Dan Patch had been born crippled in Oxford, Ind., his left hind leg so crooked that he needed human assistance to stand and nurse. But his will -- to live, to please, to win -- had made him a champion. Even John Hervey, the preeminent turf writer of the early 20th century, a florid scribe at times but usually a sober one, fell hard for the horse, who had pulled a grocery wagon around his hometown for a year or two before embarking on his racing career. "A kinder, a wiser, a finer dispositioned spirit in equine form never lived," Hervey wrote. "He was goodness personified. And wisdom. That he knew more than most of the men then on earth was the firm conviction of those who knew him. It was almost unbelievable that a horse with so mighty a heart, so dauntless a courage, such endless masculine resolution, strength and power, could at the same time be so mild, so docile, teachable, controllable, lovable. Those constantly with him worshipped him -- would have died for him, I veritably believe, had it been necessary."
Dan Patch madness was still approaching its peak that day in October 1905, when the horse, with tremendous fanfare (which is to say the usual fanfare), came to Lexington. The local hardware store by then might have a Dan Patch calendar hanging on its wall, and anyone could buy Dan Patch cigars and sleds from stores and mail-order catalogs, but the great wave of Dan Patch merchandise, the washing machines, breakfast cereals, rocking horses, dinner plates, pocket watches, pocketknives, pancake syrup, automobiles -- all these fine products and more had yet to hit the marketplace.
Dan Patch, that day, was all about hope and promise and a possible payoff for those who had wagered, at even money, that he would beat his famous world record for the mile. The tension had been palpable from early morning at the Breeders Track, where just two days earlier Dan, though choking on the extraordinary quantity of dust thrown up by his thoroughbred prompter, had paced a mile in 1:56, equaling his world record. Dan's trainer-driver, Harry Hersey, thought the horse was on the "feather edge" of conditioning, as they said in those days, and wanted to get him out on the track again as soon as possible for what might be a historic mile.
The starting method back then, decades before today's moving gate, involved the sulky driver taking the horse 300 yards up the homestretch, turning and then gradually picking up speed as they approached the wire. Dan Patch that afternoon had wheeled around sharply and charged toward the start line, hitting it in full stride, his ears pinned back, his nostrils flaring. As he moved around the first turn, he had leaned into the rail like a bicycle racer, coming close to scraping the hub of his inside sulky wheel on the white wood. "Plunging like an engine in a mad race," as the Lexington Leader would say, he had reached the quarter pole in 29 1/2 seconds and the half-mile marker in 57 1/2. The crowd realized these might be record-breaking splits. "Come on, Patch!" the fans had begun chanting. "Come on, Patch!"
At the three-quarter pole, the drivers of the two thoroughbred prompters, hitched to sulkies, had begun using "Indian whoops" to urge their tired horses onward, according to the Leader. Hersey, however, had remained "sitting like a statue," the newspaper said, never once resorting to the whip as Dan accelerated through the stretch and powered across the finish line. It was then that the Silence had suddenly fallen.
Now, at last, a man in the judges' stand stood and lifted a megaphone to his lips. In the grandstand women leaned forward clutching the souvenir Dan Patch horseshoes that their husbands and beaux had bought them for a dollar on the way in. Men leaned forward, too, and touched the brims of their straw boaters, aware that hats might have to be flung.
Dan Patch stopped panting and pricked up his ears.
"The time for the mile. . . ," said the judge, and then he shouted the numbers, declaiming them clearly in the direction of the crowd. But for once there was neither the Roar nor the Sigh. There was only more Silence. The crowd seemed not to believe what it had heard.
The judge, bemused, lowered his megaphone and waited five or six heartbeats. Then he raised it up and shouted the numbers again, hitting each one hard, until his voice rasped.
Silence, still, for another heartbeat.
Then came the Roar.
The events of Dan Patch's life may seem now as if they transpired on another planet. Who even knows what a pacer is anymore?
America was already sports-mad when Dan Patch made his public debut at a little country fair in Indiana in 1900, but only boxing, baseball and horse racing really mattered. The last of these, which mattered most of all, was divided into two distinct, and deeply rivalrous, pastimes: thoroughbred racing, in which horses run various distances carrying various weights; and harness racing, in which they don't run at all but compete in either of two gaits, the trot or the pace, pulling a two-wheeled sulky (the weight of the driver being of relatively small significance), almost always at the distance of a mile.
Before Dan Patch's day, and dating to Colonial times, the thoroughbreds were the closely watched breed; it was their major races that tent-poled the sports calendar (such as it was in the pre-Civil War years), their hard-charging champions whom the masses cheered. If you said "horse racing" before 1885 or so, you meant the Sport of Kings, the galloper's game. By the time of Dan's death, in 1916, the same rules applied: The thoroughbred had reclaimed the throne, which he has retained into this inglorious era of 3,000-person "crowds" at Belmont Park and "racinos," where people literally turn their backs to the horses while pumping quarters into video slot machines. America's sports fans, let it be acknowledged, have clearly shown their overall preference for this handsome, hyper, powerful yet fragile breed that the English confected in the 18th century and still so steadfastly admire.
Yet between its two lengthy marriages to the thoroughbred, America had a passionate fling with the light harness horse, or standardbred, as he is more formally known. For the final 15 years of the 19th century and the first 15 of the 20th, it was the harness horse the fans loved best, and they followed his sport -- known generically as trotting, despite a plethora of pacers -- more fervently than any other.
Trotting and pacing races highlighted hundreds of city, county and state fairs during this period, and rich men paraded their prized harness horses down Manhattan's Third Avenue every Sunday, rain or shine, sometimes competing in informal "speed brushes" for bets -- a cask of oysters, a case of wine, a Florodora girl or dinner at Lüchow's. The Sealskin Brigade, the drooling masses called the rotund, mustachioed millionaires who sat behind the dappled bays and grays.
In 1873 a group of standardbred owners and breeders started the Grand Circuit, a traveling race meet for the best stock, a kind of movable major league. The Roarin' Grand, the first example of an American sport organizing itself into a business with published schedules and standardized rules (baseball's National League would follow shortly), became an instant hit, stopping in New York City, Buffalo, Chicago, Indianapolis, Lexington, Detroit and other cities where thousands packed the stands to watch the premier standardbreds compete for purses of $1,500 to $5,000 -- serious ragtime-era cash.
Newspapers reflected the burgeoning public interest, providing race results, reporting on the sale of harness horses and the birth of foals, and passing along gossip with a standardbred slant. (Kennedy is thinking of shipping his trotter Dorothy S., whom he named for his pretty sister-in-law, to the state fairgrounds. His wife will not accompany him on the journey.) The thoroughbreds too got attention during this period, of course -- just not half as much. "Thoroughbred racing settled individual differences between horses," wrote the racing journalist Dwight Akers. "It no longer measured a leveling up of the breed" the way harness racing did.
What made the phenomenon all the more remarkable is that harness horses, then and now, have a lot going against them as crowd-pleasers. For one thing they are, generally speaking, less comely than their more finely featured and curvaceous thoroughbred cousins. For another thing they're not as fast, although they're able to carry their speed for long distances while going on the trot (a diagonal gait in which the right front moves with the left rear, then vice versa) and the pace (think parallel: right front and rear move together, then left front and rear). Even their name -- standard as compared with thorough -- seems to render them second-class, unexceptional, though the standard in question is not a slight but refers rather to an impressive minimum speed (2:30 for the mile) that was required of the breed's charter members.
The virtue that more than offset these considerable faults was that the standardbred had a practical application. He was something more than what the thoroughbred had become -- more, that is, than a bettor's plaything. He was, along with the incandescent bulb, the slot machine, the gramophone, the typewriter and other wonders of the age, a life-changing American invention. A loose network of horse lovers in the Eastern U.S. had set out, circa 1835, to produce the great American driving horse -- and within three decades they had, to their own amazement, succeeded brilliantly, compounding the standardbred out of equal parts thoroughbred bloodstock, common farm nags and dumb luck. Some of these horses trotted naturally at relatively high speed, and others preferred to pace, but they were in either case a perfect fit for the changing times, when a network of well-engineered roads began snaking across the U.S. and our great-great-grandfathers got more sophisticated and citified, climbing out of the saddle and into the driver's seat.
The world suddenly was a world on wheels -- the mid-19th-century racing historian Frank Forester thought it worth noting that five out of six people he passed on the road in those days were driving, not riding. "The pleasure or spring wagon," Forester observed, "appeared in many carriage houses long before the piano supplanted the quilting frame in the parlor." And, he added, "speed, which was formerly little regarded, is now an indispensable requirement in a good horse." New types of well-sprung vehicles rolled from factories daily; the English novelist Anthony Trollope, traveling through Rhode Island in 1861, commented on the "general smartness" of the carriages he observed. And what would a smart and stylish person hitch to his buggy, barouche or coach? Not some lurching galloper, as handsome as he might be. No, you wanted a smooth-going gaited horse -- a standardbred -- between your shafts.
The first true standardbreds, registered in 1879, were considered minor miracles. "The Standard-bred light-harness horse," wrote John Hervey in his classic 1947 work The American Trotter, "is America's great contribution to the ranks of the world's most valuable domestic animals . . . universally recognized as the only separate and distinct breed of light horses which has originated within the memories of persons now living." Ralph Waldo Emerson, the Sage of Concord, was spotted frequently at the harness racing track in Cambridge, Mass.; Ulysses S. Grant became an early enthusiast, buying and breeding trotters and, after he went broke, watching other people's trotters and arguing bloodlines with his friends. Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., the writer and physician, composed a wildly popular poem called The Wonderful One-Hoss Shay, an ode to the kind of vehicle a standardbred might pull, and an equally adored companion piece titled How the Old Horse Won the Bet which contained this couplet celebrating one of harness racing's first star drivers.
Budd Doble, whose catarrhal name/So fills the nasal trump of fame. . . .
Showing their keen sense of what the masses liked to look at -- and more specifically what kinds of images they would pay between 25 cents and $4 to own in lithograph form -- Nathaniel Currier and his partner James Ives (their motto: COLORED ENGRAVINGS FOR THE PEOPLE) turned out nearly 700 prints (10% of Currier & Ives's total output) with a harness racing theme, simultaneously reflecting and fueling the standardbred craze.
As time went on and the breed sorted itself out, a natural hierarchy developed: The swifter horses found their way to the racetrack while their more common relations pulled the nation's passenger vehicles, trucks, fire wagons and ambulances. Thus, on a visit to the Grand Circuit or state fair, people often saw the latest, fastest models of what they had in their home stables -- and they tended to root for horses that might be related by blood, albeit distantly, to their own.
Even in an age rife with record-smashing champions (Star Pointer, Lou Dillon, Anaconda), and a fawning press to burnish their images, Dan Patch was the beau ideal of his beloved breed. Just look at him! Yes, he had his physical abnormalities back toward the rear, so extreme in fact that anyone might wonder how he ever became a racehorse (it took a special shoe, an extra-wide sulky and a lot of patience from his trainer). But his head was as pretty as any thoroughbred's. His adventures on the racetrack were the stuff of which Victorian-era children's books were made, and he was fast enough to get the public excited about the effect he might have on the breed, and hence on American life, once he retired to stud duty. (As a stallion Dan Patch figured to be prohibitively expensive for most people, but middle-class folks might, for about $100, breed to one of his offspring -- and get, with luck, a horse who could help them cut 10 or 15 minutes off their daily commute.)
What's more, Dan Patch had exquisite timing, appearing at the precise midpoint of the standardbred boom, just after the two-minute mile was broken (by the sorry-looking, patched-together pacer Star Pointer in 1897) and, more important, just before the automobile reached its tipping point and rendered the whole science of buggy-pulling forever moot. What Dan was doing on the racetrack -- extending the limits of equine achievement -- seemed genuinely important. His fame spread to the castles of Europe, and American children (like future president Truman) wrote him 50,000 fan letters a year. It almost seemed as if Dan's owner, M.W. Savage of Minneapolis, was being a bit modest when he proclaimed his pacer, in posters, handbills and newspaper ads, THE MOST WONDERFUL HORSE IN THE WORLD!
The roar came late that day at Lexington because the crowd could not believe its ears: In an age when the two-minute mile had been violated on only a handful of occasions, Dan's announced time was 1:55 1/4, three-quarters of a second better than his old record and a mark that would stand for 33 years. "Never before in the annals of light harness achievement has such magic speed been attained," said the Lexington Leader. Moments after the clocking was posted on a board in the infield, "hundreds of men and boys mobbed the horse in their effort to touch him or even his blanket or sulky," Hervey wrote. "I worked my way to Dan's side with difficulty and also laid my hand upon him, but it was for a different purpose. I wished to discover whether the tremendous effort had exhausted him. I found him with his nostrils no more distended than after a 2:10 workout mile; there was no convulsive heaving of his flanks; he lifted his head in the air, and his eye was bright as a star."
That star would burn brightly for only a few seasons longer. At his peak Dan made $1 million a year, and this at a time when the highest-paid baseball player, Ty Cobb of the Detroit Tigers, was making $12,000, but Dan's owner was nevertheless in deep financial trouble, partly from lavish overspending. With his main business -- bogus patent medicines for farm animals -- in steep decline, Savage would push the horse much too hard, booking him for speed exhibitions when Dan, hurting from age and injury, could barely hobble to the track. After a pair of pathetic miles at the Los Angeles Agricultural Park in November 1909, Dan Patch was finally retired. He died in Savage, Minn., a town named for his owner, in 1916.
By that time carriages were mostly horseless, and creatures like Dan were considered irrelevant, or worse: quaint. Even in his final years he was a forgotten horse: His death did not make many headlines. By the 1920s Dan Patch was to most people just a brand name fading from the tub of a wringer washing machine or the slats of a sled. Forty years later, when he was mentioned in the Broadway show The Music Man ("Like to see some stuck-up jockey boy sitting on Dan Patch? Make your blood boil, I should say"), many didn't get the reference.
Today, a century after his heyday, the luxurious farm where Dan Patch lived has gone back to wild. No headstone marks this hero's grave.