CRAZY GOOD: THE TRUE STORY OF DAN PATCH, THE MOST FAMOUS HORSE IN AMERICA, by Charles Leerhsen, Simon and Schuster, 355 pages, $26
According to the author, an executive editor of Sports Illustrated, there has never been a horse so loved in America as Dan Patch, the champion harness racer who became an undefeated, record-breaking champion. The horse was named after his owner and the owner of the horse that sired him.
At the turn of the century, Ty Cobb was making $12,000 a year while Dan Patch, a big, mahogany-brown stallion, was making a million dollars. He was on most front pages across the country when he broke the record for the mile, then subsequently lowered it by four seconds, a record that stood for decades.
At the time, harness racing was the No. 1 sport in the country, and major crowds gathered to watch the competition. The sport was probably so popular because many of the patrons traveled Main Street every day using their own horse-and-buggy outfit.
According to the author, Dan Patch used the pacing gait, meaning he moved his right front and
rear legs in tandem, then did the same thing on the opposite side. The horse's home state of Indiana became known as "the Cradle of the Pacer."
Incidentally, this is also how Indiana's professional basketball team got its name.
Because Dan Patch was born with a crooked front leg, his owner, Dan Messner Jr., considered the possibility of having him destroyed, but everyone said the horse was "as gentle as a big dog." In his younger days, the horse pulled a grocer's cart.
In August 1900, Dan Patch ran his first race at the Benton County Fairgrounds, then a series of races, making his owner think he had the heart of a champion. When the horse hit the big time, his owner hired a new trainer, Myron Emmer McHenry, nicknamed "The Wizard of the Homestretch."
The horse developed a reputation for serenity, enjoying having his picture taken and allowing children to touch him and run back and forth under his belly.
In the latter part of his career, Dan Patch traveled the country, putting on speed shows for the public. He lived to be 19, by then a faded star, and was buried without ceremony. During the height of his career, however, there were Dan Patch watches, Dan Patch washing machines, Dan Patch sleds and Dan Patch cigars.This book is anecdotal and written to appeal to both younger and older readers. It's especially interesting to learn that a horse was more famous than any human athlete of the day. Seabiscuit, the famed but undersize thoroughbred race horse of the 1930s and '40s, lived a shorter life and was not a national legend like Dan Patch.