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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
“Jogging down the track past the stands after an exhibition against time, Dan had a way of nodding his head toward the spectators as if acknowledging the cheers of his public.”
When souvenir hunters yanked hairs out of Dan’s tail, the stallion didn’t flinch. When bands played—a common occurrence on Dan Patch Days—he seemed to actually savor the sound. One I winter Dan was in residence in the barn behind Savage’s home near downtown Minneapolis when it caught fire. “Dan was led out with fire and smoke on both sides,” said Harold Savage, “and it didn’t seem to bother him a bit. He was calmer than anyone.”
“He is just the best dispositioned fellow in the world,” Myron McHenry said in 1902. “He never gets the blues nor loses his temper… I have driven him in the most noisy parts of New York, amidst the rumbling of cable cars and elevated railways, and I never saw him make the slightest movement of a muscle in fear or alarm. A child could drive that horse.”
And Harold Savage was the lucky child who did. Until his death in 1977 Will Savage’s younger son loved to tell the story of Dan being hitched to a cutter on Christmas Eve, with Harold driving the pacer around the deserted, snowy city streets, delivering presents. “I remember the candles in each window,” he said, “and how the children would run out and follow Dan and me.”
Dan had fans who were famous themselves, or would be: Lillie Langtry once arranged to have her personal railroad car stop close to Dan’s, so she could walk over and visit the champion. A young Missouri boy named Harry Truman wrote Dan a fan letter, and Dwight Eisenhower went to see him pace at the Kansas State Fair.
Dan took special notice of photographers. “Every time you pointed a camera at him,” recalled the Minneapolis photographer George Luxton, “he seemed to sense that he should look pretty. In fact, it was almost impossible to get a profile of him. Finally, I got Harry Hersey … to stand out in front and call Dan by name. When Dan would look at [Hersey], I’d snap the picture.”
“To the men who have studied and known him during his life,” wrote Merton E. Harrison in the introduction to his Autobiography of Dan Patch , “it seems that his intelligence must be almost human. … The work of his caretakers, trainers, and drivers has always been high class, but it has always been supplemented by the self-esteem, care and thoughtfulness of the horse himself. Dan Patch has come to be spoken of as ‘the horse that knows.’ ”
Myron McHenry was the best sulky driver in the country, but that didn’t stop Will Savage from firing him at the end of the 1903 season. The driver had complained publicly about Dan’s being turned into an advertisement icon, the centerpiece of what he called Savage’s “circus.” For his part, the teetotaling Savage didn’t approve of McHenry’s drinking and associates. (Anyone who went to work at Savage’s stock farm had to swear to his personal sobriety and his abhorrence of unclean language. If an employee was heard to have had alcohol or to have been cursing, even off duty, he was promptly discharged.)
Savage immediately put his trainer Harry Hersey in Dan’s driver’s seat. Mersey didn’t let Savage down; he drove Dan through one record after another, including a stellar world-record 1:551/4 mile in Lexington in 1905. But many turf experts, and ordinary people, speculated that Dan would have done even better with McHenry.
‘This I can say for [Hersey],” wrote Harrison in the peculiar and engaging “autobiography” in which the newspaperman spoke as Dan himself. “He was industrious and his theory and work in preparing me were masterful. He never asked of me more than I was physically fit to do. But when it came to driving me almost any one could have done as well. I never felt the love for him that was inspired by my first driver [Johnny Wattles] nor the confidence in his ability and courage that I felt when McHenry was up behind me. Perhaps I am an egotist but 1 have always resented the oft-repeated statement that ‘Hersey made Dan Patch.’ My honest opinion is that Dan Patch made Hersey.”
Nevertheless, the exhibition Dan and Hersey put on at the Minnesota State Fair on September 8,1906, was extraordinary, the “I-was-there” brag of a whole generation of Midwesterners. Dan had arrived on the fairgrounds at Hamline, north of St. Paul, the weekend before the fair opened, but Hersey didn’t allow the public in to look at him before his exhibition mile on Monday, the third. That afternoon Dan came out before the forty thousand plus spectators and paced a mile that for another horse would have been a miracle, but for him was merely workaday—1:56½. Everyone was happy to see him set a new fair record, but there had to have been some disappointment at his time. So fair officials exercised their option of having Dan appear a second time, on Saturday. At midweek ads appeared in the local papers: