In which I read a book, and learn a lot about Standardbred horses

It's not surprising that I read a lot of books--I am a librarian, after all.

However, I never expected to learn so much about the horse in my backyard by reading a book about a horse who is only distantly related, who lived about a century ago, half-a-continent away from Haiku Farm.

And yet....

Crazy Good: the true story of Dan Patch, the Most Famous Horse in America by Charles Leerhsen is a fabulous book, and it taught me a lot about Standardbred horses in general, the history of trotting and pacing horses in particular, and a certain 7-year-old Standardbred mare specifically.

Dan Patch was the very first athletic superstar in America, a horse who earned more than a million dollars a year in product endorsements in 1904

when Ty Cobb was making twelve thousand dollars a year playing baseball.

Dan Patch was the lucky product of a breeding planned by two drunk guys. The colt was a son of the famously fast and exceedingly dangerous stallion Joe Patchen (his image graces the top of the Haiku Farm blog page--the weathervane horse is called the "Patchen Horse" because it was modelled after Joe Patchen) and a poorly-bred, mostly-crippled mare called Zelica, who never produced another fast horse in her career as a broodmare.

Dan himself was born with a crooked left hind leg, and was nearly euthanized at birth. However, his breeder was a sentimental man and allowed the crippled colt to live.

When Dan was broke to harness, he required a specially-built cart to allow his wonky leg to swing extra-wide, and he also required special shoeing to keep him sound.

Yet, with all these deformities, the horse was sweet-tempered, handsome, and amazingly fast.

One of the (many) products that--officially or unofficially--bore the horse's name was a small engine that the manufacturers implied would run strong and fast like Dan Patch himself!

Dan Patch was eventually bought by the owner of an animal feed company, who used the horse as the "celebrity face" to promote his product. MW Savage pushed this good horse too far, too fast in an attempt to make more and more money from him,

and yet the stallion retained his sweet nature and much of his speed, racing with "gallopers" as chasers to encourage him to go faster than he would need to pace in order to win races against other pacing horses. He set an official pacing record of a mile in 1:55.25 at the age of 9; the record stood for almost 32 years.

Here's a cool video that includes historic footage of Dan Patch.

That's just some of the cool stuff I learned about Dan Patch by reading the book.

I also learned a lot about Standardbreds in general:

* The breed is entirely American, and quite new. Horses accepted into the original breed book had to demonstrate the ability to trot or pace a "standard" mile in 2:35, pulling a wagon. There was no other requirement--not size, not shape, not breeding. A lot of the early standies were local-bred mongrels, thoroughbred galloping horses (usually descended from a galloper named Hambletonian 10 who died in 1876, known to produce fast-trotting offspring) crossed with gaited breeds and even draft horses.

If the horse could trot fast enough to meet the standard, it could be a Standardbred.

This huge gene pool has contributed for the reknowned sturdiness of Standardbred racehorses--they are not nearly as inbred and fragile as modern thoroughbred racehorses who mostly trace back to Native Dancer.

* Although trotting and pacing races are usually a mile long, the technology of the late 1800's and early 1900's did not include a starting gate. Therefore, horses would begin trotting a quarter-mile behind the starting line, trying to stay even. If the line wasn't straight at the starting line, the judge would send them all back to try again. Sometimes there would be five or even ten false starts before the actual race began.

* In addition to the extra distance added by false starts, races were held in heats--generally the winner of three heats in five was considered the winner. Therefore, the horses were asked to race at least 3 miles in order to win.

* High-stakes racers like Dan Patch generally travelled by train,

but horses in lower-stakes races weren't usually transported to the fairgrounds. Instead, they walked there, usually pulling a wagon. The routine for a fairground racehorse was to pull the family wagon 10 or more miles to the fairgrounds, race three or more miles (not counting false starts) and then pull the family wagon back home again...and then return to "work" on the farm or pulling the grocery wagon the next morning. Dan Patch himself pulled a grocery cart on weekdays during his first few years of competition.

Clearly, Standardbreds were bred for speed, but also for distance!

These horses were built to go for miles and miles...and also for years and years. The mandatory retirement age for standardbred racers is 14, and many horses are still winning races at ages that boggle the minds of thoroughbred fans.

NO WONDER these racehorses are so fast and are yet so sturdy. They were bred to do the work! Look at the athleticism shown in the photo below of the three-year-old trotter Muscle Hill, who won the Hambletonian this year in 1:50:20--a new record for this race.

As for the horse in my pasture...

Charles Leerhsen, author of Crazy Good, is one of those sportswriters who can impart a lot of information while telling a great story--and the story of Dan Patch is a great story. In discussing some the few horses who ever came close to beating the most famous horse in America in a real race, Leerhsen tosses out this tidbit of information: that certain lines of Canadian pacers were notoriously late to mature--not even peaking in speed and agility until the age of 6 or later.
Oh yeah? He wasn't specific about which breeding lines those were, but I know of at least one descendant of those horses. She's in the backyard right now!

Apparently, the "late maturing" tendency is still there in some of those families of Canadian pacers, because neither Fiddle nor any of her immediate siblings were able to accomplish anything of interest until at least the age of 7. One of her young brothers is informally known on the track as the "Crash-Test Dummy" because at age 3, he tangled his feet so badly and so continually that he crashed his cart three times in three minutes.

Fiddle herself was a complete klutz until after her 6th birthday, and her half-brother Hector has just started to make a name for himself doing limited distance races at the age of 7.

Who knew? When you start looking at the history, it all fits together. Cool, huh?


  1. hey, did you see that global horse culture post recently about the trotting races under saddle?

    i thought it was so cool, like an endurance race.


  2. Really cool stuff! In the video, I got that same relentless sense of rhythm from Dan Patch that you get when you watch those spooky-great videos of Secretariat.

  3. Great post. I could see Dan Patch's wonky leg easily in that video.

  4. Very cool! I've been meaning to pick up a copy of Crazy Good ever since it came out, but I just haven't been able to splurge on a book.

    The more I learn about Standardbreds, the more they continue to amaze me. I grew up near the park where Goldsmith Maid was laid to rest, and I think it's ironic that I ended up with STBs... As a kid I knew the Maid's tombstone almost by heart, and always stopped to visit her when I was there; I was always drawn to horses and for many years that was as close as I got.

    In more recent years I've done some research, and found that the Maid raced until she was 20 -- but she didn't actually start to race until about age 8. Several other influential STBs, such as Lady Suffolk, also had similar careers. I think the sport's "backyard" beginnings really have a lot to do with this; as you already mentioned, the earliest racers had to be tough as well as fast!

    It gives me hope that at age 16, with a long race career behind him, my guy can enjoy "retirement" as a riding horse for many years to come, now that medicine and horsemanship have advanced to the point where keeping an older horse healthy and sound have become much easier.

  5. What an interesting, thought-provoking post! Just one thing (and since you're a librarian, figure you'll appreciate the fact-checking): You mean to say that //Ty Cobb// was the highest paid human athlete in Dan Patch's time, making $12,000 a year (Mickey Mantle wasn't born till 1931).

  6. LYTHA: OMG the links on globalhorseculture are amazing! Did you watch the french race, where some of the jockeys were actually posting the trot, at 20+ miles per hour!? Fabulous! And after the finish line, the winning rider dropped his reins and continued posting the trot with both hands in the many TB's would crash into the wall if you did that?!

    And then the footage of Moni Maker--she eggbeaters her hind legs just like Fiddle does! I've always kind of fretted because, although Fee can do a very nice "dressage" trot, her "goofing around in the pasture" trot looks like her back legs are coming unscrewed...and then I saw the video of Moni Maker with the very same unscrewed gait BREAKING THE WORLD RECORD, I'm going to quit worrying about it now.

    NOW THAT'S A TROT: I got my copy of the book from the library. Free. I couldn't even begin to afford my book habit without the public library. That said, I'm probably going to have to buy this book eventually. You can keep your copies of Seabiscuit, thanks--this book is even funny! The author's voice is sarcastic and very fun to read.

    SARAH S: I woke up about 3 am and thought, "It wasn't Mickey Mantle, duh, it was Ty Cobb!" Sigh. I fixed it, thanks!

  7. Boy am I looking forward to reading this, now. On a recent ride a buddy and I wanted to show some blossoming young horsewomen the impressiveness of Tonka's pace...she had her QH in a hand gallop, and he had no trouble keeping up, even at 20 (and a founder rehab!). It will always be standies for me.

  8. DP: that pacing gait is pretty dang cool, isn't it?!

    WV: catio
    the back porch spot where the feline reclines in the sun

  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

  10. Very cool stuff! (Camping was awesome, btw - I'll post it later.)

  11. Wow, very good info on the breed!! I learned a lot reading this!


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