Dan Patch, the celebrity horse with a big heart, earned millions of fans during the heyday of harness racing in the United States. Historians and sports enthusiasts alike consider him to be one of the most beloved American athletes of his era. Only Babe Ruth was rumored to have earned more devoted fans than the Hoosier-born horse.
Dan Patch was born on April 29, 1896, in a livery stable in Oxford, Indiana. The horse’s owner, Daniel Messner, Jr., ran a dry goods store. Dan Patch was the offspring of Messner’s mare, Zelica, and a racehorse by the name of Joe Patchen. Initially, Messner intended to name the horse Dan Patchen, but when he attempted to register the name with the American Trotting Association, the name was already taken. As a result, the horse was named Dan Patch.
When Dan Patch was born, no one believed that he had the potential to become a racehorse, much less one of the greatest competitors in the industry. In fact, he was born with such crooked legs that Messner had to lift him up to nurse from his mother. Many locals encouraged Messner to euthanize the poor horse, believing him to be hopelessly crippled. It was too late for common sense, however. Dan Patch was adorable and friendly, and Messner was determined to keep him.
Dan Patch’s legs never completely straightened, but eventually they did grow much straighter and stronger. In the end, only one leg—his left hind leg—was left with a noticeably crooked hock. He was sturdy and strong enough to haul delivery wagons for Messner’s store. A neighbor and friend by the name of John Wattles, however, saw potential in the horse as a racer and asked for Messner’s permission to train him. Under Wattles’s guidance, Dan Patch blossomed. After being fitted with a special horseshoe to stabilize his left hind leg, Dan Patch soared to new heights.
When fully grown, Dan Patch was 16 hands tall and weighed 1,165 pounds. His coloring was mahogany brown with a white star on his forehead. Many described his large brown eyes as “intelligent.”
It wasn’t until 1900, however, that Messner felt ready to enter Dan Patch in his first harness race. In the early twentieth century, harness racing was a highly popular sport. In this event, horses trotted at an even gate. Competitions were made up of three heats. Horse racing as we know it today, with horses racing at full speed, was considered distasteful and uncivilized.
It was also relatively easy to compete in a harness race. Horses required no specific breeding, and anyone, even farmers who ordinarily used their horses for other purposes, could enter. The events often took place at county fairs, and prizes were lucrative. An owner could win several thousand dollars in today’s currency for winning a county fair competition.
Messner entered Dan Patch in his first race at the Boswell County Fair. The horse won three straight heats. That summer, Dan Patch competed in one Indiana county fair after the next – Lafayette, Crawfordsville, and Brazil. In all, Dan Patch only lost one heat (at the Lafayette Fair) and no competitions. By the end of the summer, he had 4 wins under his belt and had earned $625.
Bolstered by Dan Patch’s remarkable season, Messner decided to try his luck against national competitors. In 1901, he entered Dan Patch in the Grand Circuit with a new trainer and rider, Myron McHenry. Mr. McHenry was known to be one of the best trainers in the country. With McHenry at the helm and a newly improved specialized horse shoe for Dan Patch’s left hind leg, the horse won easily against competitors in Grosse Pointe, Cleveland, Columbus, and Buffalo. In fact, he won every race that season and earned $24,600 in prize money (over half a million dollars in today’s money). The season was a roaring success and Dan Patch had easily become one of the most famous horses in the sport.
Following the 1901 season, many friends were surprised when Messner sold his winning horse to Manley Sturgis, a New Yorker and owner of an illegal gambling casino in Manhattan. After having several offers rejected, Sturgis ultimately paid a whopping $20,000 for the horse. Unconfirmed speculation was rampant that Sturgis had strong-armed Messner into the deal.
Dan Patch ran the 1902 season for Sturgis, with McHenry continuing on as his trainer and rider. Dan Patch dominated on the Grand Circuit. Unable to lose, eventually other competitors refused to race the horse. Race tracks began to refuse bets for races in which Dan Patch was expected to compete. Sturges had no choice but to rebrand Dan Patch as an exhibition horse, racing the clock rather than other competitors. On September 29, Dan Patch tied the world record by pacing a mile in 1.59 ¼ minutes.
By this time, Dan Patch had a new admirer: Myron Savage, owner of the International Stock Food Company in Hamilton, Minnesota. Savage’s company produced feed supplements for animals, including horses. Determined to secure ownership of Dan Patch, Savage offered an unprecedented $60,000 for the animal ($1.7 million today). In January 1903, Dan Patch was on his way to Minnesota.
Savage had big plans for the famous Dan Patch. Planning to use the horse to bolster his own brand, Savage began a highly successful marketing campaign, branding Dan Patch as “the champion harness horse of the world.” Savage continued to show Dan Patch in exhibitions across the country, where, over the next few years, the horse broke world speed records at least 14 times.
Under Savage’s ownership, Dan Patch broke his first world record in 1903. On August 19, he paced a mile in 1:59. Over the next few years, he would break his own record several times.
In 1904, alone, Dan Patch traveled over 10,000 miles promoting Savage’s brand of horse feed supplements and starring in highly popular exhibition races. In fact, he traveled so often that a special railroad car was outfitted just for him.
In 1905, Dan Patch set his longest-lasting world record, competing a mile in 1.55 ¼. The record stood for over 30 years. His personal best came a year later, in 1906, when the horse clocked a mile in 1.55. Unfortunately, because the race was conducted using a wind shield, which was later banned, the time never made it into the official record.
Dan Patch was retired from competitive exhibitions in 1906, but continued making appearances across the country until 1909. Between 1903 and 1909, Dan Patch proved to be an unmatched rainmaker for Savage, bringing in millions of dollars. In addition to collecting fees for his appearances, Savage was highly successful in marketing a whole line of Dan Patch-branded products. Fans could buy silver-plated horseshoes, photos, hair from the horse’s tail, and more. Some estimates indicate that in his most lucrative venues, Dan Patch could bring in over $20,000 with a single appearance.
After retiring, Dan Patch was put to pasture at Savage’s sprawling farm. Dan Patch died on July 11, 1916 at the age of 20. Heartbroken by his beloved horse’s death, Savage passed away just one day later. Dan Patch is supposedly buried somewhere on the Savage farm, but the location was never marked.
Over 100 years later, the town of Oxford, Indiana, still reveres the horse that put them on the map by celebrating “Dan Patch Days” every summer. Dan Patch’s birthplace is marked with a historical marker and the barn inside which he was born still stands. Amazingly, it is owned by a descendant of Daniel Messner. The barn roof reads, “Home of Dan Patch 1:55.”