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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
Dan never paced a better mile. Savage changed the name of his International Stock Food Farm to the International 1:55 Stock Food Farm. But because the front pacemaker’s sulky used a dirt shield—which had been declared illegal by harness-racing authorities in 1905, since it could also serve as a windshield—the 1:55 was never recognized as an official record. Savage bitterly opposed the new rule, claiming that it had been enacted merely through jealousy on the part of other horse owners, and he ignored it for the rest of Dan’s career.
But Dan’s l:55¼ from 1905 came before the dirt-shield ruling, stood officially, and was not beaten until 1938. And no pacer bettered Billy Direct’s 1938 1:55 until 1960. (Today the record stands at l:481/5.) Unofficially, Dan Patch’s 1906 1:55 was not improved upon for almost sixty years. Dan, though, did come close to doing just that, at Lexington in 1908. He whirled by the three-quarters pole at 1:25, a second and a half faster than his pace at Hamline in 1906, putting him in place for a 1:53 mile. But at the seven-eighths pole the front pacemaker, Cobweb, burst a blood vessel over his eye, wobbled, and slowed down. Mersey and Dan had to swerve to avoid a collision and in the swerving lost their 1:53 forever.
Dan’s eight-year exhibition career ended in 1909, when he went lame in Los Angeles. He’d earned Will Savage more than one million dollars through the exhibitions alone and many millions more as a trademark. He went out on the road with his younger stablemates Minor Heir and George Gano for one more season, but he simply stood on display. Then he retired to stud at the International 1:55 Horse Farm in Savage.
The only area in a champion racehorse’s career in which Dan Patch failed to garner much success was as a sire. Owners of the top standard-bred mares were reluctant to ship them all the way to Minnesota from the East Coast, Kentucky, and Tennessee, and none of Dan’s hundred or so offspring came close to approaching his times, even though Savage’s advertising made them sound like money in the bank.
Dan was more than twenty years old, and enjoying the life of an equine elder statesman, when he took ill one Friday in July of 1916. By Sunday he had seemed to recover, but Monday evening he suffered a relapse.
The next day, while a veterinarian and two care-takers stood by, Dan Patch sank to the stable floor. As he lay there on his side, he began to pace frenetically for a few seconds, just as if he were in a race. The pacing slowed, stopped, and Dan Patch was dead. He had been killed by what veterinarians called an athletic heart; the organ, twice the size of a normal horse’s, was said to have been weakened by all those years of racing.
Will Savage was in no position to save his great pacer’s life a second time; he was in the hospital, recovering from minor surgery, when Dan took sick. News of Dan’s illness and death was initially kept from him, but finally, late Tuesday afternoon, he heard that his beloved pacer had passed away. “The shock and grief he experienced,” reported the St. Paul Pioneer Press , “were almost unbearable.” But he rallied and had his son Harold tell the reporters that he intended to have Dan’s body mounted and put on display. Marietta Savage was so sure of her husband’s good condition that she headed home Wednesday afternoon, to the Savage country house on the bluff a mile north of the stock farm. As she drove up, servants came running out, shouting that she had to go back; Mr. Savage had taken a turn for the worse.
By the time she arrived her husband was dead, only thirty-two hours after Dan Patch. Like the horse’s death, Will Savage’s was attributed to heart trouble. Marietta Savage immediately ordered that Dan’s carcass be returned to the farm from the taxidermy shop. There it sat in a box for several days, until two caretakers secretly buried Dan Patch along the bank of the Minnesota River in an unmarked grave, among the remains of dozens of other horses. Mrs. Savage swore the care-takers to secrecy, and the exact location of the horse’s resting place was never revealed.
Within two years Marietta Savage had sold off her husband’s pacers and trotters. The farm ceased operations, and the Savage business interests—which then included mail-order catalogues, as well as the horse operation, feed sales, and the railroad—began their long decline. Where the International 1:55 Stock Food Farm stood there’s now nothing but an empty field alongside a busy suburban highway.
No racing horse, not even the great Man o’ War, ever enjoyed the kind of celebrity that surrounded Dan Patch for the better part of a decade. Will Savage saw more in the big mahogany bay stallion than any horseman or businessman had ever seen in any horse; harness racing was still at the pinnacle of its popularity, and Dan Patch and his owner were in their prime at the perfect moment to take advantage of it.