Like to see some stuck up jockey boy sitting on Dan Patch? Make your blood boil, I should say.
—You Got Trouble The Music Man
Who on earth was Dan Patch? Why should it offend the good people of River City, Iowa to consider a jockey riding Dan Patch?
Dan Patch, a champion harness racing pacer, was the best-known and best-beloved athlete, human or equine, in the first decade of 20th century America. In a racing career spanning nearly a decade, Dan Patch never lost a race. He set new records for the half-mile distance, the one-mile distance, the two-mile distance, and every other type of record that could be found for him to break. When no other owners were willing to put their horses up against the apparently undefeatable champion, Dan Patch raced the clock. Through mass-marketing and promotion by his third owner, Marion Willis Savage, Dan Patch became a household name.
Dan Patch got off to a rocky start in life. When he was born in Oxford, Indiana, in 1896, his legs were so crooked he required assistance to stand and nurse. Neighbors of owner and local shopkeeper Daniel Messner, Jr. suggested the poor foal be put out its misery. Instead, Messner turned training of the colt over to a local livery owner, John Wattles, who trained him slowly. Dan Patch did not compete until 1900 when he was four years old and had reached his full growth, standing sixteen hands tall (sixty-four inches) at the withers and weighing 1,165 pounds. In his first seasons of racing he broke nearly every harness racing record, so thoroughly intimidating the competition that it was difficult to find owners willing to put their horses up against Dan Patch.
Dan Patch also set the record for the sale of a racing horse when he was sold to Marion Willis Savage in 1903. Dan Patch was used to promote products of Savage’s company, International Stock Food Company of Minneapolis, Minnesota. The celebrated pacer also “endorsed” products as varied as sleds, coaster wagons, the Dan Patch Automobile (which cost $525), tobacco and gasoline washing machines. Even before Savage’s transformation of Dan Patch into an advertising icon, the horse was a popular favorite: politicians campaigning in 1902 handed out Dan Patch cigars and balloons to voters. Oxford Indiana, birthplace of the celebrated pacer, still celebrates Dan Patch Day every November 2, where townspeople can dance to “The Dan Patch Two Step.” More significantly, Dan Patch is is memorialized by the U.S. Harness Writers’ Association annual honor, Dan Patch Harness Horse of the Year.
Dan Patch retired from racing in 1909, after injuring one of his legs. He was retired to stud, although he continued to travel on exhibition tours. Dan Patch traveled in his own railroad car, painted white with his portrait on the side. Dan Patch’s success as a sire was limited, and he failed to pass along his greatness to any of his offspring. Dan Patch died of an enlarged heart on July 11, 1916. Savage, in hospital for minor surgery, died fewer than two days after.