A hundred years ago, the most famous athlete in America was a horse. But Dan Patch was more than a sports star; he was a cultural icon in the days before the automobile. Born crippled and unable to stand, he was nearly euthanized. For a while, he pulled the grocer's wagon in his hometown of Oxford, Indiana. But when he was entered in a race at the county fair, he won -- and he kept on winning. Harness racing was the top sport in America at the time, and Dan, a pacer, set the world record for the mile. He eventually lowered the mark by four seconds, an unheard-of achievement that would not be surpassed for decades.America loved Dan Patch, who, though kind and gentle, seemed to understand that he was a superstar: he acknowledged applause from the grandstands with a nod or two of his majestic head and stopped as if to pose when he saw a camera. He became the first celebrity sports endorser; his name appeared on breakfast cereals, washing machines, cigars, razors, and sleds. At a time when the highest-paid baseball player, Ty Cobb, was making $12,000 a year, Dan Patch was earning over a million dollars.
But even then horse racing attracted hustlers, cheats, and touts. Drivers and owners bet heavily on races, which were often fixed; horses were drugged with whiskey or cocaine, or switched off with "ringers." Although Dan never lost a race, some of his races were rigged so that large sums of money could change hands. Dan's original owner was intimidated into selling him, and America's favorite horse spent the second half of his career touring the country in a plush private railroad car and putting on speed shows for crowds that sometimes exceeded 100,000 people. But the automobile cooled America's romance with the horse, and by the time he died in 1916, Dan was all but forgotten. His last owner, a Minnesota entrepreneur gone bankrupt, buried him in an unmarked grave. His achievements have faded, but throughout the years, a faithful few kept alive the legend of Dan Patch, and in "Crazy Good," Charles Leerhsen travels through their world to bring back to life this fascinating story of triumph and treachery in small-town America and big-city racetracks.
Dan Patch was a pacer who broke world records at least 14 times in the early 1900's. He lived in Minnesota from the time when M. W. Savage bought him in 1902 until his death in 1916.
Dan Patch only lost two heats in his career and never lost a race. At the top of the poster, you can see the words "NEVER BEATEN" over his name. He was so good that other owners eventually refused to race their horses against him. He spent most of his active career running against the clock.
Dan Patch's official record of 1:55¼ for the pacing mile was set in 1905 in Lexington, Kentucky. His 1:55 unofficial record for the pacing mile (set in 1906 at the Minnesota State Fair but not officially recognized because of the use of a prompter with a windshield) was tied 32 years later in 1938 when Billy Direct became the official 1:55 world record holder. Savage was so indignant about Dan Patch's 1:55 mark not being recognized (the rules had recently been changed) that he renamed the International Stock Food Farm to the International 1:55 Stock Food Farm. The 1:55 mark was equaled again but it was not finally broken until 54 years after Dan Patch's run, when in 1960, Adios Butler paced the first sub-1:55 mile in 1:54:3.
The City of Savage, once called Hamilton, was renamed for Dan Patch's owner, Marion Willis Savage in 1904. I have been told that there are a few local fools who think that "Savage" is too politically incorrect and should be changed back to Hamilton. Sigh..... and sorry about the use of the word "fools" (NOT!)
100 years later, the land in Savage where the famous "Taj Mahal" stables and racetracks once stood is still all but vacant. The outline of the racetracks can still reportedly be seen from the air. You can still see some of the grade of the ½ mile track on the ground, too, if you look for it. The land is ringed with "No Trespassing" signs. There is no historical marker or anything at the site that would indicate that anything of significance once stood there.