- Historic Sites
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
Once Dan was established in his luxurious new home, the world quickly learned that he owed his prowess in large part to eating International Stock Food’s “3 Feeds for One Cent.” In the first year of Dan’s residency in Minneapolis, Savage’s feed and tonic sales grew from one million to five million dollars. Long before human sports heroes were endorsing products, Dan was. You could buy Dan Patch cigars, Dan Patch watches, Dan Patch stoves, Dan Patch washing machines, Dan Patch padlocks, Dan Patch sleds, Dan Patch coaster wagons, Dan Patch collars, Dan Patch dance music, even Dan Patch automobiles. And in later years you could ride on Savage’s Dan Patch Railroad from Minneapolis to the Savage stock farm, have a look at Dan, then continue on south to Northfield.
Savage used advertising as effectively as anyone in the country. His campaigns for Dan Patch Day exhibitions at state fairs were models of high-powered saturation promotion. “For weeks in advance of the event,” Savage’s son Harold recalled, “local papers and county or rural sheets for miles around carried a constant stream of Dan Patch pictures and publicity. In addition, wagons owned and operated by M. W. Savage would canvass the territory, decorating every conspicuous building, fence, wall or billboard space available with huge posters of Dan—and his ‘company.’ … The merits of ‘3 Feeds for One Cent’ were invariably described. …
“Every one of these advance wagons was always a word-of-mouth gospel-spreader for Dan Patch. Wherever and whenever one of them stopped, people were encouraged to gather and hear, first hand, of ‘the most wonderful horse in the world.’ ”
In later years, when Dan Patch was retired to stud, Savage wouldn’t merely sell a customer a two-year-old Dan Patch stallion colt. The purchase price included the hoopla to go with the horse. “I have spent a great many years and a lot of money learning how to advertise successfully,” he wrote his prospects, “and I propose to let you have the benefit of it by giving the Printed Material for your Stallion my personal attention. I will give you the kind of advertising that gets the business .”
Savage never negotiated for a flat fee for Dan’s fairground appearances but demanded a percentage of the gate receipts instead. “His favorite method,” said his son, “was to agree upon a date for the appearance, and then to contract either for a given percentage of the paid admission, or else for the excess amount of gate receipts over the same day for the previous season—or, say, the record sum for that day, on the [fair] association’s books.”
At opening time on Dan Patch Day, every grandstand ticket seller on the fairgrounds had company—a Savage employee standing at his shoulder, counting the receipts. When the ticket sales were tallied—Dan customarily drew grandstand crowds of upward of thirty and forty thousand—the fair managers were often shocked at what they owed Savaee. One fair discovered that the Minneapolis millionaire was due $21,500.
Dan Patch regularly drew crowds of forty thousand; one fair manager was shocked to discover he owed Savage $21,500 at day’s end.
In Meredith Willson’s The Music Man , the con man Harold Hill asks the upright citizens of River City, Iowa, in 1912, “Like to see some stuck-up jockey boy settin’ on Dan Patch? Make your blood boil? Well, 1 should say.” That about summed up rural and small-town America’s attitude toward Thorouehbred racing. Boys and men still raced their light-harness rigs—the hot rods of the day—down country roads, and automobiles were a mildly threatening novelty. The horse was still king, and Dan Patch was the paragon of horses.
He was a big horse, 16.2 hands high, trim-limbed and mahogany brown. He had a white star in the center of his forehead and eyes that were called “keenly intelligent.” The crooked left hock was rarely mentioned.
One anonymous turf journalist first saw Dan Patch early in the horse’s career. “The impression that he instantly made upon me was the profound one that only a very great horse can produce. He stood quietly amid the throng pressing around him as if oblivious of its presence, with an expression of innate power, of tremendous but unostentatious individual force such as, I suppose, Daniel Webster among men, must have possessed. Instinctively, as I gazed at him, I felt that this horse merely in repose surpassed all the expectations I had formed of what he might be in action.”
“He was ‘Black Beauty’ come to life,” said the Minneapolis sportswriter George Barton. “Most racing stallions are ill-tempered but Dan was as gentle as a Newfoundland or Saint Bernard dog. He was remarkably intelligent and almost human in his fondness for people—young and old alike. He seemed to understand everything said to him…