I have just finished the book, Crazy Good The True Story of Dan Patch, the Most Famous Horse in America, by Charles Leerhsen (Simon and Schuster, 2008). This book is to Seabiscuit about what harness racing is to Thorougbred racing. This is not meant in a disparaging sense, merely that there is considerably more interest in the latter form of sport. But it was not always so. What makes this book of more than just passing interest is that it takes one back to a time most of us have never thought much about, the time before the automobile, the time when horses were as important to life as the automobile is now, the time during which the Standardbred Dan Patch was the most famous athlete of his day.
When most people think of horses today they probably think first of Thoroughbred race horses, then perhaps the famous Budweiser Clydesdales, and, especially if they live in the West, perhaps Quarter horses. I doubt that most people today have ever heard of Standardbreds, light harness horses that were the important source of power that drove the wagons and carriages that were the major mode of transportation prior to the automobile. For the fifteen years at the end of the 19th century, and the first fifteen of the 20th century, harness horses and harness racing were as important as NASCAR is today.
Dan Patch, from a most unlikely beginning, rose to become the superstar among harness racers, and during his career earned millions at a time when major league baseball players made only a few thousand a year. For a time, virtually anything that could be sold might well carry the Dan Patch name: washing machine, cigars, sleds, breakfast cereals, dinner plates, rocking horses, watches, knives, and so on and on. Crowds of as many as 100,000 people turned out just to get a sight of him. He had his own railroad car fitted out in such luxury it was once compared to a fancy bordello. He never lost a race, kept breaking records, and his eventual record time for a mile of 1:55 (breaking an arbitrary standard of 2:00 that was believed to be virtually inviolate) created far more excitement and fame than Roger Bannister’s famous breaking of the 4:00 minute mile. This record for two-wheeled sulky racing has been equaled but never broken.
The Standardbred horse was a uniquely American creation, a horse created out of a mix of Thoroughbred stock, common farm horses, and it was also said, “dumb luck.” Some of these horses were natural born trotters and some were pacers, but both were eminently suitable for the purpose of drawing the many varieties of vehicles that existed for transportation at that time (there were more than 30 varieties of “buggies, some much fancier than others). Dan Patch was a natural born pacer who quickly outshone the somewhat more desirable trotters.
Dan Patch was a miracle horse in many ways. His dam, Zelica, had been purchased by mistake by a merchant owner who was considered a laughingstock for having paid an outrageous price for her. When he was born, Dan had a somewhat deformed hind leg that prevented him from standing to nurse. He was almost euthanized before he was helped to nurse and then to stand. His sire, a famous harness racer named Joe Patchen, was so dangerous a stallion he had to be kept in chains toward the end of his life. Dan’s owner was also ridiculed for having bred Zelica to him, as it was felt nothing good could come from such a match. While Dan Patch eventually proved faster than his illustrious sire, he shared none of his other features. Unlike Joe Patchen, Dan Patch, although a stallion, was gentle and exceedingly well-behaved. He seemed to thrive on the attention he received and even small children were safe on his back or petting his nose. And unlike most other horses he traveled well. Almost unheard of for a racing horse he would actually lie down and sleep on the train. Wherever he went records fell and huge crowds would turn out to worship him. He clearly was, as the subtitle of the book claims, the most famous horse in America.
Of course with the rise of the automobile, harness racing virtually disappeared. Standardbred horses were no longer required and the fame of Dan Patch eventually faded. This marvelous animal, after being shamelessly exploited by a greedy businessman owner, and ruined before he should have been, was finally retired and eventually carelessly buried in an unmarked grave. As a stud he sired many offspring, none of which even remotely approached his speed and fame.
There is a Dan Patch Historical Society that attracted some 10,000 people at a meeting in 2008, and there is still a market for Dan Patch memorabilia. This is an interesting book about an interesting time and well worth reading. Most horses now, except for race horses and a few draft animals, are kept merely as (relatively expensive) pets, ridden or used perhaps a few days a year at most. It was not always so.