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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
The first two times Wattles harnessed Dan to a racing sulky the horse kicked out the spokes of the left wheel. The trainer and owner wondered if his sire’s temper wasn’t coming out after all. It was Wattles who figured out the cause of the seeming violence: at full stride, Dan’s crooked left hock threw his hoof out too far to the side. Henceforward he pulled custom sulkies with axles eight inches longer than standard, and with a wooden rim on the left wheel, so he would do himself no harm if he happened to kick it.
Once the sulky problem was solved, Dan scarcely needed coaching on his pacing gait. (When a horse trots, the legs on either side move in opposite directions; when it paces, the legs on either side move in the same direction. In turf parlance, pacers are side-wheelers.) Dan required neither hobbles—a kind of equine suspenders used to promote the pacing gait—nor blinders. He was a natural-born pacer.
“Wattles worked wonders with the colt,” Messner said, “but even under Johnny’s careful tutoring, Dan was four years old before I thought he was worth entrance fees in a race. Dan quickly convinced me I was wrong in my judgment by winning a dozen races in fairly fast company.
“It was then that [M. E.] Sturgis offered me $20,000 for Dan, and I grabbed it.”
Sturgis, a professional gambler from Buffalo, New York, owned Dan through the remainder of his brief, amazing, competitive career. Dan started in fifty-six qualifying heats and failed to finish first in only two, and then because of faulty driving strategies. He won nineteen races altogether, with no defeats. When other horse owners refused to race against Dan, and track owners objected to the dearth of betting when he appeared on a racing form, Sturgis and Myron McHenry (the premier sulky driver of the day) pitted Dan against the clock. It was a profitable decision: all fourteen of his 1902 exhibitions drew huge crowds.
Throughout that season the trainers and drivers, the touts and stable hangers-on noticed that wherever Dan appeared, an unassuming gentleman in a frock coat and black derby was sure to be in attendance, with stopwatch in hand. He was ramrod straight and taciturn and had no interest in gambler’s tips, so everyone took to calling him the parson.
The parson was named Marion Willis Savage, and he astonished the horse world that December by buying Dan Patch for the awesome sum of sixty thousand dollars, twice what had ever before been paid for a racing horse, after three weeks of tough negotiation with Sturgis’s representative, McHenry.
“Many of my friends,” Savage wrote three years later, “threw up their hands and did not talk softly either, when, they declared that ‘Savage had gone crazy,’ that ‘it was too bad for a man to lose his head about fast horses,’ etc. They seemed to take it for granted that this was another sudden impulse, but time has proven to them that I had a purpose in view and that this purpose was the outcome of my boy dreams, and I can state positively that Dan Patch at $60,000 was the cheapest horse I ever bought and that he paid for himself within three years and could not be purchased of me for $180,000, which I was offered.” That $180,000 offer came from none other than M. E. Sturgis, who desperately wanted Dan Patch back.
Will Savage was born near Akron, Ohio, in 1859, with, he claimed, “a great desire to raise high-class harness horses.” He grew up in Iowa, where a brief, disastrous fling at farming left him worried that he’d never get to build that harness-horse stock farm he yearned for. He tried his hand at the feed business, had some success, and in 1886 moved his enterprise north to Minneapolis. By the turn of the century Savage’s International Stock Food Company (“3 Feeds for One Cent”) was one of the top commercial concerns in the city, providing feeds and animal tonics to farmers and ranchers all across the Midwest.
Savage already owned a large collection of racers and retired champions when he acquired Dan as the star of his stable. Savage built his base of operations, the International Stock Food Farm at Hamilton (later Savage), on the Minnesota River, about twenty miles south of Minneapolis. It was the Waldorf-Astoria of stables, with steam heat, exceptional ventilation, and electric light. The central Taj Mahal-like dome rose 100 feet in the air, and five 155-foot wings projected from it in a 180-degree arc. At the end of one of the wings was Dan’s stall, 20 feet square, with shades on the windows and monogrammed woolen blankets and hung with pictures of Dan and his triumphs. Outside was the one-mile out-door track, and connected to one of the wings was an enclosed, steam-heated half-mile of track for winter workouts. Beyond lay 750 acres of pasture.