NEVER WAS A PACER LIKE DAN PATCH!
When he had thrashed all comers on the county fair tracks of the nation, Dad Patch was forced to race what amounted to exhibitions against his own speed records.
Born in humble surroundings in Indiana, pacer Dan Patch was purchased by the enterprising Minnesotan M.W. Savage, who made Dan Patch a star on the Standardbred circuit. In the 1900s, arguably the best pacer ever earned world renown in his time, hitting world record times that were unapproachable for years.
(Pictured ABOVE is a pacer just coming off the track after his warm-up rounds for a race at the Henry County Fairgrounds in Napoleon, Ohio.)
One hundred twenty-one years ago, the fastest pacer in history was born near Oxford, Indiana. His was named Dan Patch. His owner was Daniel Messner, Jr., a small farm harness racing die-hard.
Before Dan Patch came along, Messner, Jr. bought a mare named Zelica and began to train her for the track. Good Standardbreds then, in a time when harness racing was a wildly popular rising sport, could cost more than $300, which is what Messner, Jr. paid in cash for Zelica. The purchase included the trade of one of Messner, Jr.’s horses.
Zelica was Messner, Jr.’s great hope for a record-winning pacer. But the mare met with great misfortune, instead. A racing accident ended her career in her first heat. A badly torn tendon put Zelica on the harness racing sidelines.
ZELICA AND JOE PATCHEN:
Messner, Jr. used most of the money he possessed to send Zelica to Illinois to be mated with Joe Patchen, one of the fastest pacers on record at the time. Zelica and Joe Patchen begat Dan Patch at Thistle Ridge Stock Farms in 1895.
Always looking for a winner, Messner, Jr. elected to sell his great pacer before Dan Patch fully achieved his greatest fame. But the small time trainer/racer had named Dan Patch for himself and the pacer’s sire, so Dan Patch took Messner, Jr. along in heritage and in name into the winner’s circle.
At the age of three, when he became eligible to run with the big boys, Dan Patch was swift. He was freaky fast; very fast and willing to train without being asked. Dan patch spent a year racing the local fairgrounds circuit before graduating to the country-wide Grand Circuit. Messner, Jr. then accepted an offer of $20,000 to sell Dan Patch to M.E. Sturgis, a sports enthusiast from Buffalo, New York.
So began in earnest the legend called Dan Patch.
NO TAKERS TO RUN AGAINST HIM:
Dan Patch broke his sire’s record for a one mile pace in 2:01-1/4 with a trip of 1:59-3/4. He later shattered the world record time for a mile, 1:59-1/4. On the Grand Circuit of Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago, Memphis, Lexington, and others, he became unbeatable, running faster and faster times until other harness racing drivers and owners began to scratch their pacers rather than be embarrassed by Dan Patch, or to not drive them onto a track that scheduled Dan Patch in a race.
Since no one would compete with Dan Patch, it was suggested to race officials that, in order not to disappoint the large crowds that came to see Dan Patch run, the pacer be allowed to run alone, against the stopwatch and his own times. Track stewards readily agreed to such appearances to save their tracks’ incoming revenues.
Dan Patch never disappointed a crowd. He ran many races against his own time in faster pace, frequently setting new records. Between 1900 and 1902, the pacer improved his own time in mini-second increments, while taking on other runners.
THE PURCHASE OFFER:
Dan Patch’s fame grew, until in 1902, Sturgis received an offer from a Minnesotan Standardbred owner named M.W. Savage. The brief message from Savage offered Sturgis $60,000 for Dan Patch.
The purchase offer was accepted, and in Savage’s rich and connected hands, Dan Patch became an American household name.
WORLD WIDE FAME:
In faster and faster times, Dan Patch paced the mile, traveling in Savage’s privately owned train car, stopping in all the Grand Circuit cities, racing at every available state fair, from 1902 to 1906. His well-to-do owner, of the International Stock Food Company, raced Dan Patch and promoted him far and wide, sealing the pair’s place in history.
Dan Patch Day tickets for his state fair races gnerated millions of dollars in sales. This income, combined with Dan Patch’s stud fees, was said to earn as much as $3,000,000 for the enterprising and cordial Savage.
Steadily, Dan Patch lowered his pacing time for the mile. In exhibitions across the country, he scooted from 1:59-3/4 to 1:59 flat, to 1:57-1/4, to 1:56 flat, all phenomenal times for Standardbred contests of his era.
By this time, Dan Patch, to offer maximum competition, spent most of his appearances pacing after two, or more, running horses pulling Standardbred carts. Dan Patch paced faster than running horses!
The pacer’s name was emblazoned on cigar boxes, horse feed bags, playing cards, cups, mugs, and rugs, sleds and buggies. Old horse shoes supposedly worn by the champion pacer were sold in quick fashion.
LAST RACE AT AGE ELEVEN:
Retirement finds every individual. And so it found the great Dan Patch. His generous Minnesotan owner presented the pacer to his public in Minneapolis for a last pace against his own time. Minnesotans had adopted the Indiana-bred horse as their own in his years of pacing and traveling fame.
Against runners pulling carts, once again, Dan Patch shone in his final performance. At the age of eleven, he rounded the track to the cheers of thousands, and put the runners to shame. He took a full second off his fastest previous time, a world record mile pace in 1:56 flat, hitting the wire in 1:55 flat, an unofficial pacing record because runners had been allowed in the race against him.
The name Dan Patch is forever revered in harness racing circles. In his long career, Dan Patch never lost a single race. He was beaten just twice in individual heats, but rebounded to win both those contests.
When fully retired in 1909, Dan Patch owned nine world records. He died on July 11, 1916. The entire nation mourned him. The next day, Savage, who mourned the great Standardbred above all others, also passed on, keeping the great pacing team forever in tandem.
All Photos and Exhibits from the personal and copyrighted collection of Barbara Anne Helberg