Today’s star athlete may have a horse to thank for her multi-million-dollar salary and endorsement contracts.
The first celebrity to topple physical benchmarks and earnings records simultaneously was foaled in Oxford, Indiana in 1896, with legs so crooked the colt had to be propped up to nurse. Although the horse’s owner was advised to put the animal out of his misery, Dan Patch was nurtured to maturity and trained as a pace horse.
Dan Patch started putting in impressive performances in the era’s popular sport of harness racing, in which the jockey was pulled behind the horse, on a small cart called a sulky.
Once Dan Patch entered the Grand Circuit, he smoked competitors from Cleveland to Brighton Beach, earning huge purses and striking panic in track owners, who had to pull the horse out of the betting. Over his ten-year career, Dan Patch never lost a race, and conceded only two heats.
When he returned to Oxford in November 1901, his hometown feted the champion with Dan Patch Day, when the horse was paraded around the town square as the municipal band played “The Dan Patch Two Step”, recently penned by a local resident.
Sold for the record sum of $20,000 in March 1902, the horse changed hands again within the year when purchased for three times as much by Marion Willis Savage, owner of the International Stock Food Company of Minneapolis, Minnesota.
A marketing pioneer, Savage convinced the world that Dan Patch was the “World’s Champion Pacing Horse” through heavy promotion. Not only did Savage use the horse to hawk International Stock Food products, the impresario licensed the Dan Patch brand to endorse everything from tobacco to cars.
As products increasingly sported the logo of the mahogany stallion with the small white star on his forehead, the horse was living up to his legend, logging record times in the half-mile, mile and two-mile events. Dan Patch is most celebrated for his 1:55 mile at the Minnesota State Fair in 1906, a record set in front of 93,000 spectators.
When he wasn’t home luxuriating in a palatial stable complex known as the Taj Mahal, Dan Patch traveled to fairs and competitions in his own railroad car, decorated on each side with his portrait. The horse’s promotional team was enhanced by the presence of two dog-and-pony shows–which Savage purchased from Gentry Brothers’ Circus in Bloomington, Indiana. Savage was known as “The Second P.T. Barnum”.
Dan Patch retired from racing after becoming lame in 1909, but lived until 1916, at which point the truly symbiotic nature of the horse’s relationship with his owner was revealed. After hearing of his horse’s death July 11, 1916, Savage, recovering from a minor operation in the hospital, took a turn for the worse, expiring within 32 hours.
In Anderson, the Hoosier Park horse-racing facility, situated on “Dan Patch Circle”, hosts the Dan Patch Invitational each year.