Was the legendary horse simply the creation of a master promoter?
story by Dean A. Hoffman
Dan Patch was truly an amazing horse, gifted with the manners of a diplomat and the speed of a Ferrari in the Model T age. He was far and away the most popular harness horse of the early 20th century, and a performer recognized around the nation.
But was Dan Patch the greatest harness horse of all time?
The legend of Dan Patch has grown over the century since his death in 1916. That’s not surprising. John Hervey, the most eminent harness historian of Dan Patch’s era, called the pacer the greatest “entertainer of all light harness horses until finally retired.”
Hervey’s use of the word entertainer is telling.
There are some common misconceptions about Dan Patch. Setting the record straight is bound to upset some people, but, as John Adams famously once said, facts are stubborn things.
- Dan Patch’s race record was 2:03¾ at a time when the fastest race mile was 2:00½, set almost a decade earlier by Star Pointer in 1897.
- Dan Patch had a record of 1:55 only in the mind of his owner Marion W. Savage. That record was never recognized by any official organization. Savage didn’t care if the record was recognized or not. He splashed it on all his advertising and promotional materials. Savage didn’t care a whit about official sanctions; he was using the 1:55 time to promote his feed products, just as he was using Dan Patch to promote his products.
- Dan Patch’s official record was 1:55¼ and was taken in an unorthodox manner by having him follow a Thoroughbred whose sulky was fitted with a windscreen to eliminate wind resistance for the pacer. Dan Patch would put his nose on the back of the man driving the Thoroughbred and pace his exhibition miles in this manner. No other horses used this method, and it was soon outlawed.
- Savage was irked by the criticism of his prize pacer trailing a windscreen and sent Dan Patch to the mile track in Memphis, Tenn., then considered the fastest piece of dirt in harness racing, to demonstrate how fast Dan Patch could pace “in the open” (as modern time trials are conducted). Dan Patch responded with a 1:58 mile.
- Dan Patch’s 1:58 mile stood for 11 years as the fastest mile in the Open ranks until Directum I paced in 1:56¾ in a time trial in 1916. Directum I’s record was not bested for 22 years until Billy Direct paced in 1:55.
The foregoing facts do not diminish the greatness of Dan Patch. He was truly a wonder horse and a celebrity known from coast to coast and even to Canadian horsemen. He was far ahead of his contemporaries.
His implacable temperament made him the ideal exhibition horse, as crowds could gather around him and Dan Patch would stand like a statue, ignoring the frenzy.
He was foaled in Indiana and rose to prominence by winning race after race, moving up the class ladder to where he was competing against the best.
When Savage, who was from Minnesota, bought Dan Patch for $60,000 in 1902, people were aghast at the price and wondered how a horse could ever earn that price back with the paltry purses of that time.
But Savage didn’t intend to use Dan Patch as a racehorse; his plan was to use Dan Patch as pacing promotion for his stock farm feed business. Dan Patch was trained to be an exhibition horse and race the stopwatch, not other horses.
Savage was unquestionably a master promoter, and his greatest creation was Dan Patch. Hervey wrote that Savage “carried out this notoriety campaign with a system, a sweep, and a comprehensiveness that marked him as a very Napoleon of advertising.”
Savage’s methods didn’t always find favor among people in harness racing who wanted Dan Patch to race other horses.
When Dan Patch died, The Trotter & Pacing magazine said the discontent with Dan Patch should be directed at his management, not at the horse.
In its July 20, 1916 issue, the magazine carried an ad which said, “A good deal of the aspersion that has been cast upon Dan Patch by reason of the methods by which some of his performances were recorded is undeserved.”
When gleaning harness racing history, some horsemen disparaged Savage because he owned both Dan Patch and Minor Heir and would never race Dan Patch against Minor Heir. Minor Heir had lowered Star Pointer’s race record from 2:00½ to 1:59 in 1910, making his race record almost five seconds faster than Dan Patch’s.
Who might have won if Dan Patch and Minor Heir had faced each other in a race? We’ll obviously never know.
A famed sports writer who questioned the greatness of Dan Patch is the legendary Red Smith of The New York Times.
In a 1960 column titled “Dan Patch, a Myth,” Smith wrote, “The next best thing to a good lie, Joe H. Palmer wrote, is a true story that nobody will believe.
“Bye Byrd Byrd is the finest living pacer, and quite probably the greatest that ever lived. But there’s bloody little support for the latter claim to be found in livery stable literature or in word-of-mouth among horsemen. Everybody clings to the myth that Dan Patch, who raced through the first decade of the century, was a creature from another planet and that it is sacrilege to mention a mere horse in the same breath.”
Smith acknowledged that crowds of 80,000 gathered to see Dan Patch in his exhibitions.
“Yet the chances are that if he had to go against Bye Bye Byrd, Dan would never see which way the other went,” he wrote.
Smith explained the methodology used in Dan Patch’s exhibitions.
“He had a Thoroughbred pal named Cobweb that used to go in front of him in these time trials with a windshield immediately behind Cobweb’s driver,” he wrote. “Dan would shove his nose up against the windscreen and just stick to the leader. Employing this device, he once went a mile in 1:55 flat, but the American Trotting Association tossed out the record as a phoney.”
Lost in all the hoopla over Dan Patch over the past century is the amazing speed of Directrum I. Two years before taking the aforementioned mark of 1:56¾ in 1916, he won a race in Columbus, Ohio, in 1:58. That record for a race mile was not lowered until 37 years later when Good Time won in 1:57.4 at Lexington.
We should never forget, however, how incredibly popular Dan Patch was because of his travels and exhibitions. Dwight Eisenhower recalled going to see a Dan Patch exhibition. Dan Patch even got a mention in a song from “The Music Man” in which Professor Harold Hill asks rhetorically, “Like to see some stuck-up jockey boy sittin’ on Dan Patch? Make your blood boil? Well, I should say.”
Dan Patch was likely seen by more people than any other harness horse in history. He was the star attraction at many state fairs in his prime. People in that era loved horses, and Dan Patch was their matinee idol.
Dan Patch also did much to popularize the pacing gait. Before his barnstorming tours led to national fame, pacers were looked upon simply as failed trotters. And hobbled pacers were anathema virtually everywhere. Many tracks posted their race dates with the caveat that “No Hobbled Pacers” were permitted to participate. Dan Patch went free-legged in his miles.
Dan Patch did not become a successful sire. That’s no reflection on his accomplishments on the track. Many superior horses fail to pass on their genetic greatness. Savage stood Dan Patch in Minnesota, then as now not exactly a hotbed of harness breeding.
Dan Patch’s story is one of facts vs. legend. Although often unpopular, facts win that battle every time. And the facts tell us that Dan Patch was truly a wonder horse, widely known and widely beloved. He surely created many fans of harness racing early in the 20th century and gave thousands of people memories to pass along to children and grandchildren. HB
Dean A. Hoffman is a former executive editor of Hoof Beats. To comment on this story, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.