Walk around this small Indiana town of fewer than 1,200 residents and he is everywhere. He has a small cafe named after him and you will find him on the top of the town’s water tower. His likeness welcomes you on billboards as you enter the city limits and you will find him on varied murals, plaques and street signs throughout the town.
And yet, he left town for good nearly 116 years ago.
Each decade across those many years has showcased legendary athletes who captivated America and often transcended sports by branching into popular culture.
Their names are familiar to the average American sports fan in spite of passing time: Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Red Grange, Bobby Jones, Jesse Owens, Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan.
But more than a century ago, from 1900-1909, a superstar in the world of sports captured the hearts and minds of Americans unlike any before him. He was a household name who endorsed cigars, washing machines, automobiles, toys, watches and much more. More than 90,000 people from all walks of life would routinely come from miles away and gather at local fairgrounds to see him compete. Today, however, his name and exploits are largely forgotten.
His name was Dan Patch and he was called the “Epitome of Excellence in American Sports.” And even though he was billed as “kindhearted, generous and a staunch Methodist who never performed on a Sunday,” this idol was not human. He was, though, arguably the greatest harness racing horse who ever lived.
Dan grew up in the small town of Oxford, Indiana in a barn that still stands today. The horse’s owner, Daniel Messner Jr., was a local storekeeper in Oxford who had aspirations of grandeur when he bred his five-year-old mare Zelica to the champion standardbred stallion Joe Patchen. Those dreams were quickly shattered on April 29, 1896 when the newborn foal arrived with legs so crooked and knees so knobby that some thought it would be a blessing if he didn’t survive the night.
But survive he did. In the winter of 1899, three-year-old Dan Patch would often be seen pulling a cart through Oxford’s snowy streets, trailed by young boys who grabbed on the back and were pulled on their sleds for a free ride. Residents of the small town always thought of Dan as their own.
At Dan Patch’s racing debut at a nearby fair during the late summer of 1900, it was reported every store in Oxford shut their doors so residents could journey to see him race. During the next two years, Dan’s fame grew as he raced at tracks throughout the midwest and on the East Coast at summer fairs and exhibitions. At the conclusion of each summer’s Grand Circuit, he would return to Oxford and the adulation of hundreds who would cheer his arrival at the train station. He would lead the walking procession back to his barn and those who were there stated he knew exactly how to navigate his way back to his stall.
Dan Messner would routinely turn down offers to sell the horse, but, in early 1902, an offer of $20,000 was too tempting and Dan Patch was sold. On March 18, 1902, the beloved hometown champion left Oxford by train and journeyed on to immortality. Dan would race across America during the next seven years and be viewed and loved by thousands. He never lost a race and set a world record in the mile that would stand for 32 years.
Like so many small towns across America, Oxford has suffered during the past half-century from the completion of the interstate highway system. People no longer needed to travel secondary roads that took them through the business districts of small towns in order to get to their ultimate destination. And unlike previous generations, baby boomers have often moved on from the towns of their birth to brighter lights, different lifestyles and better jobs. Passing time in Oxford has seen the closure of the high school, bowling alley, movie theater, speakeasy and even Dan Messner’s general store. One thing remains, however, and that is local pride in Dan Patch.
Each September, the hometown horse is remembered during the town’s annual Dan Patch Days festival. His original 60×44 foot barn continues to sit nearly 75 feet from the Messner home. Dan Messner boarded up the structure before he bought his first automobile in 1914. The Messner family continues to reside in the home to this day, yet have never entered the barn’s interior that remained boarded up for nearly 100 years. The family did, however, keep up the exterior. Messner’s son Richard lived in Oxford until his death in 1992 and repainted the barn’s roof every few years with the phrase that is still present today, “Home of Dan Patch 1:55.”
The barn was finally opened in February 2006 when Dan Messner’s grandson and the home’s current resident John Messner and his wife Pam began a major renovation to the structure. Discovered in its interior were, among other things, remnants of two sulkies, three horse stalls and Dan Patch’s tack trunk, bearing the horse’s name in faded letters. And on the slats within what once was Dan’s stall, you could look closely and see evidence of cribbing marks. While the barn is only open to the public on special occasions, this permanent landmark draws a steady number of passersbys throughout the year who will stop their cars and take photos… and try to imagine a time, a place, a man and a horse.
American Horse Racing’s Most Magical Places: The Twin Spires
If Churchill Downs is American thoroughbred horse racing’s cathedral, then its steeple and eternal landmark is the Twin Spires. These two pinnacles cast a glow up and down Louisville, Kentucky’s Central Avenue and across the landscape of horse racing history.
The Spires are easily the most recognizable symbol in the Sport of Kings and, arguably, in all of sports. It is difficult to take a mental portrait of the Churchill Downs racecourse where the spires are not present and prominent.
In the late spring of 1894, the first 20 editions of the Kentucky Derby had come and gone and the Churchill Downs track (then called the Louisville Jockey Club) was facing bankruptcy. Twenty-four-year-old architect Joseph Dominic Baldez was contacted to help build the track’s new grandstand.
Original plans did not call for the spires and they were pretty much an afterthought. Baldez felt the grandstand required something to accentuate its appearance and give it pizzazz. The spire was a very popular architectural element during the late 1800s and Baldez had a style based on symmetry and balance. As a result, the spires are 12 feet wide, 134 feet from center to center and rise 55 feet from the grandstand’s roofline to the top of the adorning king posts. Each spire has eight rounded, closed windows that were originally left open in their early days.
The Twin Spires made their debut on Monday, May 6, 1895 at the 21st Kentucky Derby. Thus, the Run for the Roses hasn’t always been held on the first Saturday in May — but close enough.
The Spires have grown in mystique with passing time and even adorned Kentucky license plates for close to ten years. Yet, the sun shines bright on the entirety of Churchill Downs. Take a walk through the grounds and you will find an engaging mix of the old and the new. Every Derby champion is listed on plaques throughout the concourse. The very first champion, Aristides, has been memorialized with a statue in the paddock, as has Hall of Fame jockey Pat Day.
In recent years, additions have included new luxury suites, a Turf Club and lounge, a Skye Terrace, new Millionaire’s Row, increased restroom facilities and new balconies, overlooking both the track and the paddock. Perhaps most stunning was the addition of two massive towers to the left and right of the Twin Spires. The towers brought 2,800 additional seats to the total capacity but have not detracted all that much from the majesty of the spires.
Walk the corridors beneath the grandstand and you will come across the old, abandoned betting windows. An eyesore? Not really, but rather nostalgic, lasting memories of days gone by. And when you leave the paddock and stroll through the tunnel heading out to the track, stop and pause for a minute and imagine the great horses and humans that once tread this ground.
One day a year, the eyes of the sports world are focused on Churchill Downs. The track is filled with decorative spring hats, mint juleps, celebrities, pageantry and, of course, roses. The Twin Spires, however, stand tall during winter, spring, summer and fall.
The total cost of the 1894-95 grandstand construction and the Twin Spires was all of $42,000. Former Churchill Downs president Matt Winn reportedly told spires architect Baldez, “Joe, when you die, there’s one monument that will never be taken down — the Twin Spires.”
More than 120 years have passed and Churchill Downs has seen a pretty good return on that initial investment.
American Horse Racing’s Most Magical Places: The White Pine
Of all the great landmarks in American horse racing, perhaps only one is truly alive — and it resides at Belmont Park in Elmont, New York.
It has been there to witness 13 horses achieve the greatest moment of their lives when they captured the sport’s most elusive honor, the U.S. Thoroughbred Triple Crown. And it watched from afar as Go For Wand, Prairie Bayou, Timely Writer and the great Ruffian left the paddock to head out to the track — only to never return.
It has seen its share of both horses and people across many, many years. Some say more than three centuries, but the New York Racing Association approximates the age at between 175-190 years old.
It is a tree.
Not just any tree, however, but a huge Japanese white pine, specifically known as Pinus Parviflora. The shade it casts across the Belmont Park paddock predates the track itself, which was constructed in 1903.
Before there was Belmont Park, the land the tree resides on was part of the Manice estate. A 19th century Tudor-Gothic mansion stood on the estate and, until it was torn down in 1956, it served as the headquarters of Belmont’s Turf and Field Club. It was said that the mansion “stood in a setting of ancient trees” (from New York Racing Association’s Belmont Park: 1905-1968).
Trees surely dominated the Manice property. And it’s no small feat the White Pine has survived so long, considering a sawmill reportedly stood on the Belmont land to “handle the vast amount of lumber needed for construction of the stands, barns and other buildings.”
The paddock area at Belmont Park on major racing days can be electric. There is little mistaking you are in New York when surrounded by passionate, knowledgeable fans who never hesitate to let jockeys, connections and even horses know how they are performing, favorably or otherwise.
A focal point of the paddock is an incredible statue of Secretariat, portraying the legendary champion stretched out in full flight. The sculpture commemorates his 31-length triumph in the 1973 Belmont Stakes to win the Triple Crown. The paddock area also serves as a festive picnic area during the track’s racing meets.
However, much like the combination of the Twin Spires and Churchill Downs, take away the White Pine from the paddock area and Belmont Park just isn’t the same. While it may not be a singular focus of photographs taken during a day at the races, it is always present. Take a look at old snapshots of Belmont Park from the early portion of the 20th Century, and there is the tree — in the background, casting its shade with sweeping, expansive limbs in faded sepia and black and white.
It has been part of the track’s official logo since 1968. And, perhaps, the current version illustrates the White Pine’s magnitude and significance throughout Belmont Park and the history of Thoroughbred horse racing best. The logo simply displays a man, a horse, a couple of bystanders… and a tree.
American Horse Racing’s Most Magical Places: Man O’War’s Barn
I entered the lobby of the main office at Mt. Brilliant Farm and checked in at the front desk. The receptionist directed me to drive back out through the farm’s main entrance, turn right on Huffman Mill Pike, head up the road a ways and turn right again, through a gate marked Faraway Division.
As I drove through the Faraway gates, I imagined what it must have been like for more than one million tourists who passed this way during the 1930s and ‘40s. They came from every state in the United States — and multiple continents, for that matter — and journeyed down this same driveway. When I arrived at the bottom of the hill, I caught sight of a stone pillar with an imbedded brick plaque proclaiming, “Man-O-War’s Barn.”
Mares and stallions in the distant Mt. Brilliant paddocks watched me closely, but otherwise I was alone. I got out of my car and slowly walked down a hedge-lined path toward the solitary green and white barn. When I reached the side-by-side barn doors, I grabbed both handles, paused, took a breath, and pulled the doors apart.
Rays of sunlight illuminated the interior through a variety of windows. As I walked inside, brown-paneled stalls in each of four corners surrounded me. Each had brass nameplates centered on the stall doors.
The first read American Flag. I turned the corner and saw the name Crusader on another. The door across the aisle said Golden Broom.
Then, I approached the remaining stall.
The world of horse racing has brought me many thrills across the years, from Secretariat’s incredible 31-length victory in the 1973 Belmont Stakes, to singing My Old Kentucky Home in unison with more than 150,000 others at my first Kentucky Derby. But gazing upon the stall once occupied by Man O’War brought a type of excitement different from any before.
Nearly 70 years have passed since he walked the earth at Faraway Farm… all those people, all those miles — to see one horse. I knew I was walking on sacred ground.
I peered through the stall’s parallel slats at the bare stall floor and tried to hear the resonant echoes of the great horse’s groom, the late Will Harbut, as he had once enthralled thousands of tour groups so many years ago.
“Yes sir, we turns him out every day. … No ma’am, he ain’t no trotter. …Stand still Red. …He wuz de mostest hoss.” (From The Blood Horse, November 8, 1947.)
It was magic.
I guess standing there alone with my thoughts made it all the more special. And as I drove away from Faraway that afternoon, I knew I wanted to capture that feeling again.
That desire has taken me to 20 different states during the past 15 years in search of American horseracing’s most magical places. Not just Thoroughbred venues mind you, but also Standardbred, steeplechase and Quarter Horse racing landmarks as well.
In this continuing series, I will share with you many of these iconic places. I carefully refrain from calling any of them the most magical. What is special to one, may be nondescript to another. The series will capture the special places in the world of horse racing in the form of farms, barns, racetracks, cemeteries, a trophy room, a statue, a tree and two wooden octagonal spires.
While most of these landmarks are readily accessible to the general public, a few are not. In these cases, I am most grateful to the management of the venues for their graciousness and shared passion.
I hope you enjoy this journey across the landscape of American horse racing. The faces, places and memories evoked along the way are timeless.