A hundred years ago, the most famous athlete in America was a horse. His name Dan Patch. In his day this brown gelding reached sports star status; he was a cultural icon in the days before the automobile. Born crippled and unable to stand, he was nearly euthanized. For a while, he pulled the grocer’s wagon in his hometown of Oxford, Indiana. Until his talent for racing was revealed when he won a race at the county fair and from that fateful day kept on winning.
Harness racing was the top sport in America at the time, and Dan, a pacer, set the world record for the mile. He eventually lowered the mark by four seconds, a big-hearted achievement that would not be surpassed for decades to come.
America was enthralled by Dan Patch, who had a kind-eye and gentle nature who carried himself like a true superstar. It’s been said that he acknowledged applause from the grandstands with a nod or two of his majestic head and stopped as if to pose when he saw a camera.
He became the first celebrity sports endorser; his name appeared on breakfast cereals, washing machines, cigars, razors and sleds. At a time when the highest-paid baseball player, Ty Cobb, was making $12,000 a year, Dan Patch was earning over a million dollars.
But even then horse racing attracted hustlers, cheats and touts. Drivers and owners bet heavily on races, which were often fixed; horses were drugged with whiskey or cocaine. Although Dan never lost a race, some of his races were rigged so that large sums of money could change hands.
Dan’s original owner was intimidated into selling him and America’s favorite horse spent the second half of his career touring the country in a plush private railroad car and putting on speed shows for crowds that sometimes exceeded 100,000 people. But the automobile cooled America’s romance with the horse, and by the time he died in 1916, Dan was all but forgotten.
I love sharing the tales of famous horses so that their legend isn’t lost. Thanks to Harness Racing for the reference.
Here are some other tales of famous horses of their era.