Sired by a champion pacer and born in 1896, Dan Patch was bred to be a racehorse. At first glance, though, his chances didn't look too good. He had long legs, knobby knees, and worst of all, a sweet disposition—not considered an asset in the hypercompetitive world of harness racing. "I thought all he would be good for would be hauling a delivery wagon," said his first owner.
Luckily, a stable owner took an interest in the little charmer and began training him for a life on the track. After four years he was ready—and once he started running, he never looked back. Dan Patch was a pacer, a horse that pulls his driver in a wagon in harness races. He lost only two heats in his career and never lost a final race. So fast that other owners eventually refused to race their horses against him, Dan Patch spent most of his career running against the clock.
By December 1902, when Minneapolis businessman Marion Savage bought him for $60,000 (about $1.2 million today), Dan Patch was famous in horse-racing circles. Savage's friends questioned his extravagance, but Savage had a plan for recouping his investment. Savage's company, International Stock Food, was a large operation that sold feeds and tonics to Midwestern farmers and ranchers. Dan Patch was soon featured in the company's advertisements, and within a year Savage's sales had risen from $1 million to $5 million.
Decades before images of sports figures began appearing on cereal boxes and in TV commercials, Dan Patch began "endorsing" everything from cigars to cars to washing machines. Under Savage's watchful eye, he was transformed from a racetrack wonder into a household name. Adding to his reputation was his continued high level of performance at exhibitions. On Saturday, September 8, 1906, Dan Patch made horse-racing history when he set a new world record by pacing a mile in one minute and fifty-five seconds. Savage changed the name of his farm in Savage, Minnesota, to the International 1:55 Stock Food Farm, and his horse's record stood until 1938. Dan Patch died on July 11, 1916. Marion Savage died just thirty hours later.
El-Hai, Jack. "The King of Sport." Minnesota Monthly (July 2003): 40–43.
Martin, D.R. "The Most Wonderful Horse in the World." American Heritage 41, no. 5 (July/August 1990): 98–105.
In 1906, Dan Patch makes horse-racing history when he sets a new world record by pacing a mile in one minute and fifty-five seconds.