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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 track will be better, Dan will be faster and Mr. Savage promises that every possible effort will be made to break the world’s record of l:55Vi on Saturday afternoon. Dan will pace three miles and his fastest mile will be about 4 o’clock. If you want to see a thrilling sight and witness a wonderful performance be sure and visit the great State Fair on Saturday.
Savage’s hardworking publicists subsequently claimed a crowd of ninety-three thousand that Saturday, a figure that has entered Dan Patch mythology. In fact, ninety-degree temperatures kept the attendance to between twenty and thirty thousand. But the heat wave had also made for a very fast track.
Because Dan needed the semblance of competition to produce his best times, he always performed his exhibitions with at least two other horses on the track. These pacemakers or prompters were gallopers hitched to sulkies; pacers or trotters couldn’t hope to stay close to Dan, let alone get in front of him. One prompter would run ahead of him, and one at his side, while sometimes a third horse waited at the three-quarter-mile post, ready to leap in and add urgency to the affair. Dan at times actually put his nose into the back of the front pacemaker’s driver, even though that horse was at full gallop. To protect Dan from dirt and stones, the front pacemaker’s sulky had a dirt shield rigged between the wheels.
“He is just the best dispositioned fellow in the world,” said one driver of Dan. “He never gets the blues nor loses his temper.”
A Minneapolis Journal reporter named John Ritchie described the third mile that Dan paced the afternoon of September 8, after two warm-up miles: ‘The trio came down the stretch in a swhirling cloud of dust, a seeming incarnation of the spirit of speed. The thumping of the hoofs of the runners intermingling with the regular tattoo of those of the splendid pacer were the only sounds heard as the compact squadron of record breakers swept by the judges’ stand.
“The watches clicked and the assault upon the world’s record was on. The leading runner was down to hard going when the trio passed under the wire, and Dean [driver of the front pacemaker] gave him no peace. He was eating up the ground in mighty bounds, with Dan, his nose almost against Dean’s shoulders, pacing in a style more suggestive of a machine than the effort of a thing of flesh and blood. His great stride was equal to the leaps of the runner and he could not be shaken off. … The second runner, traveling the far distance, was struggling to keep up. …
“They flashed by the quarter in :28¼ and were on for the half. Here they were traversing the most friendly portion of the track and altho in that part where speed is always optically lessened to the watcher it could be seen that they were going great guns. They reached the half in :57 and the flag in the wigwag tower near the barns dropped to notify Dean and Hersey that they were within the work, as planned.
“On they rushed to the far corner and toward the famous ‘hill.’ They dropped out of sight for a moment behind the cut and when they showed again on the curve it was seen that nothing had changed. Into the head wind they came to the three-quarters and sped by the third pole with the watches stopping at 1:26½.
“Here at the corner a third runner was waiting and his driver sent him into the rush. The crowd came to its feet to a man, and the picture was the greatest ever seen on a racecourse.
“The dust clouded behind the flying horses. The sun shone thru the haze of dust and smoke, silhouetting the horses so that they formed the central point of the picture with everything else in the landscape blotted out. At first they appeared no larger than black specks in the haze, but not for long. They rushed down the stretch, an avalanche of speed and effort. As they neared the stand, the roll of the hoofs of the horses and the cries of the drivers added a new life, transforming the panorama into a living spectacle… Dan Patch was going as easily and as freely as when scoring in the preliminary trials. His stride was as true and his reach as time-devouring as when he started the great trial.
“There was an instant of craning of necks, of riveted attention and the quartet had whirled beneath the finishing wire. The work was done.”
Dan slowed, wheeled around, and came slowly back in front of the judges’ stand. The judges consulted with one another, carefully checking their timings, and then the official announcer put a megaphone to his mouth: “Dan Patch has paced the mile out in 1:55 flat, breaking the world’s—”
And that was as much as anyone heard through the eruption of shouting, screaming, and general hullabaloo. A hailstorm of hats flew up into the air and down again. Thousands of people made for the big stallion, while fifty policemen attempted to protect him from his fans.