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The Most Wonderful
Dan Patch never lost a race. But that’s not how he made his owner a multi-millionaire. America’s best-loved horse was also perhaps the most shrewdly marketed animal of all time.
July/august 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 5
In mid-September 1904 Americans reading about Teddy Roosevelt’s conquest of the Republican presidential convention and the decisive Japanese victory over the Russians at Liao-yang came across a brief news item from Kansas: Dan Patch had taken ill in Topeka and would probably die. The announcement sent tremors of anticipatory grief not only through horse fanciers and turf followers but through millions of people who had no particular interest in the track. In the first decade of the century, almost any American could tell you that Dan Patch was no ordinary horse, not even an ordinary champion. He was a harness racer, a pacing horse that never lost a race, an opponent so formidable that after he had spent just two years on the Grand Circuit (the major league of harness racing), owners gave up pitting their pacers against him. Dan Patch paced only against the clock, before several million paying spectators at state fairs. His owner, M. W. (“Will”) Savage—a man of personal, if not commercial, circumspection called him “The Equine King of All Harness Horse Creation and the World’s Great Champion of All Champions.”
Dan had already appeared that season of 1904 at fairs in Indianapolis, Des Moines, Lincoln, and Milwaukee and had been booked to pace an exhibition mile at the Kansas State Fair. He arrived, as usual, in his private equine Pullman car, with his driver, Harry Hersey, his caretakers, his run-nine pacemakers, and their drivers and was billeted in the best stable on the fairgrounds. But the day of his exhibition the mahogany bay stallion suddenly came down with colic, which could kill a horse in a matter of hours.
Will Savage got the bad news in Omaha; he commissioned the top veterinarians in the Midwest to head for Dan’s stall, then chartered his own special train to Topeka. By the time he arrived on the fairgrounds, newspaper reporters had set up their death watch outside the stable. Inside, the vets on the scene had all but given up. Harry Hersey, who’d just begun driving Dan that season, told the Minneapolis Journal , “Dan has no chance on earth.”
Savage didn’t believe it. He went into the stall alone and assayed his stallion’s condition. He was an expert horseman, with a large stable of fine harness racers back in Minneapolis, and he knew as much about horses as many vets. The millionaire feed merchant took from his pocket a vial of his own International Colic Cure (“The only Colic Cure sold with a Cash Guarantee”), called in some handlers and vets to help persuade Dan to take it, and then asked to be left alone with the horse. He sat down on the stable floor, put Dan’s head on his lap, petted him, whispered to him, talked to him, and—devout Methodist that he was—prayed.
Savage stayed with Dan all through the night, while the vets, the handlers, and the reporters waited outside. After dawn one of the handlers summoned up his courage, tiptoed into the stall, and a few seconds later came back out, beaming. “Anyone know where we can get some apples?” he asked.
In Minneapolis, the horse’s hometown, the Journal had given over its front page to the headline DAN PATCH, KING OF PACERS, IS DOOMED TO EARLY DEATH . Early that afternoon Savage telegraphed home, letting Minneapolis know that the king of pacers was much better. “This news,” the Journal said, “will carry general cheer thruout the turf world.” Dan recovered so rapidly, in fact, that he was out pacing only a few days later and was back on the exhibition circuit in October.
That’s the way it always went between Dan Patch and Will Savage. The millionaire and the horse did each other proud again and again during their fourteen-year collaboration. They were compatriots as much as a man and an animal could be; they were partners. It’s safe to say that without Dan Patch, Will Savage would never have been the success he was, and without Will Savage, Dan Patch would have been nothing more than another good turn-of-the-century pacer. “There was something uncanny, almost supernatural, about their relationship,” Savage’s son Harold recalled in the 1960s, “from the moment they met until the end.”
When an Oxford, Indiana, store-keeper named Dan Messner, Jr., paid the outlandish fee of $150 to have a broken-down mare called Zelica bred to a champion pacer named Joe Patchen, yet untested as a stud, his friends and fellow horsemen thought he’d taken leave of his senses. And when the colt was foaled in April 1896, Messner probably agreed with them. Little Dan Patch—“Dan” for himself, “Patch” for his sire—just didn’t look like a horse with potential. His knees were too knobby, his legs too long, his hocks curved. And unlike his ill-tempered sire, he actually seemed fond of people right from the start, a bad sign in a racehorse.
“I thought all he would be good for would be hauling a delivery wagon,” Messner said years later. “Fortunately, Johnny Wattles, a livery-stable proprietor of Oxford, saw possibilities in Dan as he began to mature. He asked me to turn the colt over to him for training purposes.”