Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Sports

April 29, 2008

From Cripple to Workhorse to Legend

Dan Patch's rise to the top of harness racing was stunning and meteoric. Then he was forgotten. A new book restores his name to its rightful place above Seabiscuit's.

Carl Bialik

Sporting greats need biographers to ensure their immortality—particularly when they can't speak. Dan Patch peaked along with his sport, harness racing; he set speed marks that stood for decades; he drew crowds of 100,000 and sponsorship salaries topping $1 million; and his achievements were enhanced by his humble beginnings as a crippled horse who was nearly put down, then put to work. His fame exceeded Seabiscuit's. Yet he's fallen into anonymity.

Charles Leerhsen. Photo by Diana Eliazov.
"When the automobile came along it rendered the standardbred horse not just second-best but uncool, rustic, and quaint."

Charles Leerhsen. Photo by Diana Eliazov.

With Crazy Good: The True Story of Dan Patch, the Most Famous Horse in America, Sports Illustrated editor Charles Leerhsen attempts to restore Dan Patch to his former glory, even as harness racing has become marginalized even within the marginalized sport of horseracing. Dan Patch is long dead—buried at an unmarked site—and those who knew the champ and could speak are also dead. What's left are conflicting, myth-laden records. Leerhsen talked to Gelf about untangling fact from fiction, what Barbaro taught us about ourselves, and the therapeutic value of a good horse. The following interview has been edited for clarity. You can hear Leerhsen and other sportswriters read from and talk about their work at Gelf's free Varsity Letters event on Thursday, May 1st, in New York's Lower East Side.

Gelf Magazine: What special challenges do you face, as a writer, when your main character is dead and could never speak?

Charles Leerhsen: It would have been nice to have eyewitnesses. In the notes at the end of Seabiscuit, Laura Hillenbrand writes that it was fascinating to read the old newspaper accounts but that she couldn't have brought her subject to life in the same way without the stories and descriptions provided by people who had actually interacted with the horse. I didn't have that option. Dan Patch died in 1916. Even if I had found people who had interacted with him, they might not have realized I was in the room with them. So I had to work harder and find more sources. Fortunately, Dan Patch, besides being very fast, was an extraordinary individual, an extremely handsome, wise, and trusting animal who made a deep impression on many people, who were moved to express themselves about him in writing, or to journalists, at the time.

GM: For Varsity Letters, we've had a lot of books about events a century ago, and 50 years ago. When writing a sports-history book, is there an ideal time to wait? How important are anniversaries in selling the book to publishers, and then marketing it to readers?

CL: Anniversaries are useful in getting your book published and then noticed, but a good story trumps everything. There are no significant Dan Patch anniversaries coming up, and you could say this book has come along way too late because the horse has been almost completely forgotten—or you could say that it's matured into a great undiscovered story.

GM: Dan Patch's fall from fame to anonymity was dramatic. How did you hear about him in the first place?

CL: I don't remember. I've always liked horse racing and so I've always read about it, and if you poke around in horse-racing history, Dan Patch surfaces pretty quickly. He's also mentioned in a song in The Music Man; quite a few people know his name from "Ya Got Trouble (Right Here in River City)," but they have no idea what it means. The reason he fell from the heights so quickly was that his breed—the standardbred, or harness horse—was the forerunner of the automobile, a gaited horse bred to pull buggies and other wheeled vehicles. Standardbreds were all the rage—and harness racing was the most popular sport in America—between roughly 1885 and 1915. But when the automobile came along it rendered the horse not just second-best but uncool, rustic, and quaint. And this was a very style-conscious, status-conscious time in America—not a good time to be any of those things.

GM: You make the case that Dan Patch was more popular, at his peak, than Seabiscuit. Do you think Seabiscuit's been overhyped?

CL: Dan Patch was much more popular because not only was he the supreme hero of the No. 1 sport in America, but he also was living proof that Americans could create a new breed of horse that could quicken the pace of travel generally—and because he was, as I've said, so beautiful, lovable, and inspiring. Crowds of more than 100,000 came out to see this magnificent mahogany bay stallion race against the clock in attempts to lower his world record for the mile. And for a while he made about $1 million a year endorsing hundreds of products. For Seabiscuit's climactic match race against War Admiral, I think about 35,000 were in the stands. This is not to say he wasn't a very famous racehorse or that Laura's book didn't touch a cord and merit its great success. But Seabiscuit was bred in the Kentucky Bluegrass to be a thoroughbred racehorse—he just wasn't very good for a while. Dan Patch was not bred to be a racehorse; he was born crippled and had to be held up to nurse; he pulled the grocer's cart around Oxford, Indiana. He gave people a lot more to love him for, and they did.

GM: Dan Patch's father was named Joe Patchen. Was it common to give harness horses such human names? Was that partly a reflection of their more everyday identities, compared to thoroughbreds?

CL: Not really. Harness horses were not second-class citizens in those days. Standardbred meant they were bred up to a certain standard, not that they were standard in the sense of ordinary. And then as now there was no accounting for taste. Joe Patchen's own father was named Patchen Wilkes, which is how he got his name. One thing that was different then was that you could change a horse's name fairly easily, and people were happy to do so to slip ringers into race so they could cash a bet—or to turn their horses into living ads. A great horse of that era named Anaconda raced for one year as Knox Gelatin King.

"Harness racing then was a lot like NASCAR, except the fans were better dressed."
GM: You strike something of a cynical, bemused stance about the sport and some of its more velvet-toned chroniclers. What was your reaction to the outpouring of love for Barbaro?

CL: The Barbaro incident demonstrated, among other things, that the wider American public has a strange relationship with horse racing. Most of the time, they don't care. But on Derby day they do, and if there is the possibility of a Triple Crown winner, they do. And if a horse is racing to raise money for kids with cancer, or if he fatally injures himself in a nationally-televised race, then that animal becomes a hero. And that's great. But you have to ask yourself: Why don't they care even a little the other 364 days? I'm not saying sports fans are bad for not caring, just that they have an odd connection to horse racing.

GM: Is harness racing safer for horses than thoroughbred racing? Might the publicity around Barbaro's death provide an opportunity for harness racing to return to popularity, at least relative to thoroughbred racing?

CL: Because harness horses go on either of two gaits, the trot or the pace (Dan Patch was a pacer), and do not push off their spindly back ankles to gallop, the way thoroughbreds to, racing is easier on their bodies, yes. They are a hardier breed in general. But it doesn't follow that Barbaro's death will help harness racing. I hope my book helps harness racing, because if people get a taste of the often-maligned game and check it out I think they'll overcome their prejudices and like it quite a bit. You know, it was Ralph Waldo Emerson's favorite sport—oh, wait, maybe that's the problem!

GM: How would Dan Patch do against today's best harness-racing horses?

CL: He would kick their ass. The breed has continued to evolve. His world record of 1:55 for the mile was a freakishly fast time, and today the record is in the high 1:40s, but Dan didn't have the benefit of the modern-day sulkies (racing carts) and track surfaces. And nobody since has had his heart and his understanding of what the idea of racing is.

GM: Do you think there should be more horse-racing coverage in SI?

CL: It's a chicken-egg thing (I do think there should be more coverage of chickens, by the way). SI is in the market for great stories, but if people don't show an interest in racing by going to the track and watching on TV, they are probably not going to read about it in Sports Illustrated. So SI shouldn't cover it more until they do.

GM: In Dan Messner's time, riding was seen as therapeutic. Do people turn to their cars for that kind of therapy today?

CL: As I say in the book, harness racing then was a lot like NASCAR, except the fans were better dressed. But horses are unique, even if some people do get great joy from cars. There's an old English proverb that says, "There is nothing for the inside of a man like the outside of a horse"—meaning just looking at a horse can make you feel better, calmer, happier. That was true when horses were everywhere and it's true now, I think.

GM: Have the Dan Patch aficionados gotten copies of the book yet? Do you crave their approval more or less than that of, say, the New York Times Book Review?

CL: I don't think they've seen it yet. I very much hope they like Crazy Good, but I wanted to write a good book, not necessarily a polite one, and I fear some of them won't approve of me for letting the manure chips fall where they may. This is just my way of saying, "What, are you crazy? Give me the Times!"

Dan Patch

Photo courtesy of the US Trotting Association.

GM: You write that a prior Dan Patch book was "appallingly bad." How so?

CL: In every way, but especially because it turned the people in the story—especially the man who owned Dan Patch for the last 14 or so years of the horse's life, M.W. Savage—into icky, candy-coated saints.

GM: Much of the book-writing process seems to have been cutting through bullshit and sorting out the true story. How did you do that without any living witnesses? For instance, the notion that Dan Messner bought Patch's mother by accident, because his wave at an auction was misinterpreted as a bid, struck me as the stuff of legend.

CL: That particular anecdote came from a hitherto unknown and unpublished manuscript written by the son of Dan Patch's original trainer. I don't think anyone had even read that manuscript in more than 70 years; I describe in the book how I got hold of it. I find the story about the auction very believable because it's consistent with Messner's other horse-dealings and because that old manuscript reeks with Midwestern politeness—the author would never have said anything that might make Messner look foolish if it were not true. There are some stories and legends about Dan Patch that I doubt and point these out in the book, which is partly about the process of searching for the real Dan Patch. One of my other great sources was the horse magazines of the day, which were big, vibrant weeklies, jam-packed with news, interviews, editorials, letters-to-the-editor, and gossip. The problem with these for a writer is that they are neither scanned nor indexed. But they're fun to prowl.

GM: You're used to Time Inc.'s famously rigorous fact-checking process. How did the fact-checking for this book compare? Did you hire a fact-checker?

CL: I didn't hire a fact-checker per se, but I ran pertinent parts of the book by lawyers, professional researchers, horse-racing historians, and experts on the history of Indiana and Minnesota, the states where Dan was born and lived most of his life, respectively. I double-checked everything and what they questioned I triple-checked, and changed when necessary.

GM: Are you scared you might be cursed after visiting Dan Patch's gravesite?

CL: In Savage, Minnesota, some people believe you will die if you tell other people the location of Dan Patch's unmarked grave. I guess I hope that this book is so successful that I become eligible to die a million deaths.

GM: Is there really such a thing as a stallion shield that prevents horses from masturbating? Um, how do horses masturbate?

CL: Obviously you missed the movie portion of my bachelor party.

Carl Bialik

Carl Bialik, a co-founder of Gelf, is a writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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- Books
- posted on Apr 30, 08
Nancy C.

I loved this interview and can't wait to read the book. It sounds like it evokes a whole lost era and culture, not just one really charismatic horse.

- Books
- posted on Apr 30, 08
scott green

As a harness racing historian, one who has researched and written an article on Dan Patch. it will be very interesting to compare notes from this book to my work.

I eagerly await it's arrival in my mailbox.

- Books
- posted on Apr 30, 08
Steve W.

I have most of the Dan Patch memorabilia and love the history of this great horse. Its look like Mr. Leerhson has done a great job and can't wait for the book and then the movie!

- Books
- posted on Jun 09, 08
John Phillips

I just reading CRAZY GOOD and it was the most enjoyable read. I am a seventy year old man whose father was born in 1903. I remember many occasions my dad raved about Dan Patch and how much of a hero he was to him when he was a boy. He had a poster of Dan Patch in his room over his father's blacksmith shop in Gainsville, TX during the later part of the great horse's career. After reading your book I have a much better understanding of why my dad was such a hero worshiper of Dan Patch. It must have been a most unique time for a boy. Dad always spoke with humor, fondness, and warmth about his childhood. Horses were a big part of his life as his dad worked with them, shoeing them and repairing harness in the earlier years. Dad's grandfather also live nearby and had a horse barn where Dad had some regular duties that he seemed, in retrospect, to relish. Congratulations on a truly great book.

- Books
- posted on Apr 24, 11
gregg Anderson

It's truly amazing the land since 1916 of the majestic barn of Dan Patch is still
there in outline form....line up the 3 radio towers going north from hwy 13 ..that is the exact location of the
smaller inside track and northward the huge
outside track to the north which almost comes to the minnesota river....from the air you can clearly see the outline of the big track..My dad took me up in his small plane-got some nice photo' can search goggle map and see everything yourself.....

Article by Carl Bialik

Carl Bialik, a co-founder of Gelf, is a writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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