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The Best There Ever Was


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American's first equine idol and sports merchandising's first mega-star.

About the Author

Sharon Smith is an award-winning reporter/anchor of televised horse racing on ESPN, NBC and Sportschannel Los Angeles and the author of five books on horses and racing. She is a graduate of Northwestern University and attended journalism school at the University of Texas. Smith lives in Milford, Connecticut.


Before Man o' War, before Seabiscuit and almost three-quarters of a century before Secretariat, a pacing racehorse named Dan Patch enthralled Americans. By the time Dan Patch reached racing age in 1900, the nation was hurtling past smokestacks that rose into the 20th century. Dan Patch was a star during the twilight of an America that evokes memory and myth. The horse links us to a past of county fairs and church suppers, of neighbors waving to one another on hometown streets. He excelled at old-time harness racing while living on into the new automobile era.As Sharon B. Smith observes in "The Best There Ever Was," the timing of Dan Patch's birth date, April 29, 1896, coincided with the shift to transportation's future: Six weeks later, automobile manufacturers Charles and Frank Duryea would announce that they had sold their 13th horseless vehicle. Americans called these motorized contraptions by a variety of names: gasoline buggies, locomobiles. The newfangled machines had to share the dusty, unpaved roads with horses. But by the time Dan Patch had finished his racing career, in 1909, Henry Ford had introduced the Model T. By the time the horse died, in 1916, Ford was selling half a million cars a year. This took horses off the roads and confined the fastest of them to racetracks. In harness racing, horses trot or pace at speed while urged on by a driver in a single-seat cart called a sulky. Americans in the 19th century identified closely with this sport because most people drove horses as their primary transportation. Few could resist the urge to go fast when another horse and buggy pulled alongside. Harness racing was daily life lived large. People loved Dan Patch because he was fast and also because he started bowing to the grandstands, something he learned on his own. Newspapers called him the "national pet."Ms. Smith makes the argument that Dan Patch stood for Middle America and its cultural values, accompanying a population shift from the East to the nation'

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