Sports Celebrity at State Fair
The recent success of American Pharoah … becoming the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years … had racing fans excited. “Pharoah Fever” resulted in people buying hats and T-shirts honoring the horse. American Pharoah did more to revitalize racing than all of the industry’s marketing campaigns combined.
But there was a time when another form of racing was more popular. In the early 1900s, sports fans flocked to the track to watch harness racing. And of all the harness racing horses, one rose above all the others. His name was Dan Patch.
The plain brown Standardbred was born in 1896 in Indiana. He was named for his owner, Dan Messner, and his sire, Joe Patchen. Early on, he was nothing flashy, but he showed potential, and in 1902 Messner sold the horse for a record $20,000. Dan Patch was moved to Minnesota, where he lived for the rest of his life.
Dan Patch never lost a race. Owners sometimes refused to run their horses against him, so he would run alone against the clock to please the crowds that came to see him. He was the Michael Jordan of his day. He endorsed everything from toys and cars to cigars and chewing tobacco. At the height of his career, he earned more than one million dollars a year.
On this date in 1910, the Fargo Forum and Daily Republican announced that the schedule for the state fair had been finalized. Harness racing would be the centerpiece. Famous horses like Maud C and Minor Heir would be there. But all the fans cared about was Dan Patch. With the announcement that Dan would be at the fair, the newspaper predicted that attendance would break all records. Excitement swept through the state at the news that such a celebrity would be coming to North Dakota. Attendance records were indeed broken as North Dakotans took the opportunity to see a sports legend in person.
Dan had retired undefeated the year before, but he continued to tour in exhibitions as the holder of nine world records. He died in July, 1916, and his owner died two days later of a heart attack. Dan Patch is supposedly buried in Oxford, Indiana, but rumor has it that the tombstone marker is just a memorial, with the actual grave somewhere near Savage, Minnesota, a town renamed for Dan Patch’s owner, Marion Willis Savage. The town still holds a “Dan Patch Days” celebration each June.
Dakota Datebook written by Carole Butcher
“Big State Fair Being Advertised.” Fargo Forum and Daily Republican. 10 July, 1910.