SBJ/April 29 - May 5, 2002/Opinion

Race horse pulled a buggyful of bucks

Saturday's Kentucky Derby is the one horse race Americans have when they're having only one, so its winner is sure to enjoy a measure of celebrity. Chances are that it'll be brief, because the sports spotlight is antsy. The animal will get its blanket of roses, the office-pool winners will have their day to crow, and we'll move on.

At one time, though, back when horsepower was more than an engine rating, a horse was this land's sports idol for the best part of a decade. Not only was he an athlete without peer, he also was an economic engine, the likes of which wouldn't be seen again until the present era. Indeed, a case can be made that, adjusting for inflation and population size, he was bigger than anyone around now.

The horse was Dan Patch, a pacer who pulled a buggy. Conceived for a $150 stud fee, he was foaled in 1896 in Oxford, Ind., an unprepossessing animal with crooked ankles and a flailing gait that kicked the spokes out of the left wheels of the sulkies to which he was harnessed. He didn't appear on a racetrack until age 4, when a trainer figured out he needed a special, extra-long vehicle.

But once he was up and running (well, pacing), he was all but uncatchable. In 1900, '01 and '02, he won all 20 of his starts and 54 of 56 heats. Then rival owners gave up pitting their animals against him, so he was switched to racing in exhibitions against the clock. He paced a world-record mile of 1:59 in 1903 and lowered it in stages to 1:551/4 two years later. That mark wasn't surpassed until 1938.

Dan Patch made commercial history because of Marion Savage, the Minnesota feed-company owner who bought him in 1902 for the then-eye-popping price of $60,000. Savage made him the centerpiece of his International Stock Food Co. brands, attaching the animal's image to all manner of promotional materials.

At the same time, he installed him in a custom-built, rail-car stable and sent him on the county fair circuit, always demanding a percentage of the gate and putting his operatives in the box offices to make sure he got it. It wasn't uncommon for turnouts of more than 30,000 people to pay to see Dan perform until he was retired in 1909. As youngsters, Dwight Eisenhower and Harry Truman were in those throngs, and found the experience memorable enough to mention to biographers.

Savage also branched out, licensing others to use the Dan Patch name. Space precludes a full listing of such products, but they included smoking and chewing tobaccos, a soft drink, baking soda, clocks, watches, sleds, cutlery, china, stoves and washing machines. There was a Dan Patch auto, and a Dan Patch rail line that ran between Minneapolis and Northfield, Minn. It's still in operation.

SportsBusiness Journal wasn't around then to keep track of such things, but one latter-day researcher estimated that by the animal's death on July 11, 1916 — and Savage's death from illness just 32 hours later — the entrepreneur reaped some $13 million on the horse's merchandise and appearances. That was when a dollar was worth a dollar, and was in addition to what he meant to Savage's primary business.

Homage to Dan continues to the present day. His biography is in Encyclopedia Britannica, and some 40 Internet sites are devoted to his life and legacy. In 1998, the Indiana legislature named for him the stretch of State Highway 352 that goes from Boswell to Templeton and passes through his birthplace of Oxford. A Dan Patch thermometer fetched $3,000 at a recent antiques auction.

Michael Jordan should do so well 90 years from now.

Frederick C. Klein (fklein@mindspring.com) is a columnist for SportsBusiness Journal.

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