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.
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?