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's geographical center. Wealthy industrialists of the East favored stylish trotters, a type defined by its gait. Midwesterners admired trotters but quickly grew to prefer pacers (again, defined by their gait), who raced faster than trotters. Dan Patch's game was pacing: Indiana-born and raised, he converted urban, Eastern horse enthusiasts to his style of racing.
All the elements of a good yarn come through in Dan Patch's story. No one would have believed at his birth that he would develop into a fast racehorse, one destined to break records. He was born crooked-legged, unable to stand on his legs and nurse naturally. His breeder-owner, Dan Messner of Oxford, Ind., said that he believed the colt would amount to no more than a delivery-wagon horse—if he lived.
Time and special shoeing to correct Dan Patch's gait turned the pacer into a racing machine. Dan Patch still had knobby knees and traveled with a peculiar motion caused by a misshapen left hind hoof. But this horse loved to race, as Messner and the colt's initial trainer discovered. His 1-minute-55-second mile (later disallowed on a technicality) set a mark not surpassed for more than half a century.
Dan Patch's story is as much about humans and their ambitions as it is the tale of a horse. Messner parted company with his beloved horse when he had barely begun, in 1900, when he sold him to a gambling casino owner, one Manley Sturges. Messner saw how Sturges coveted the horse and feared that Sturges might poison Dan Patch if he could not have him. Messner let the horse go—for $20,000 (more than half a million dollars today) and made a tidy little profit.
Dan Patch did not last long with his gambler-owner. Sturges soon sold him for $60,000 to the horse's third and final owner, Minnesota businessman Marion Willis Savage. Under Savage's control, our hero metamorphosed into a moneymaking marvel of the new century's advertising age. He became Savage's tool for promoting his livestock feed business—and more. Cigars, washing machines, chewing tobacco, a musical, a newspaper—and, yes, an automobile costing $525—soon carried Dan Patch's name. The horse earned what we might call "personal appearance fees" while touring the country in a custom railroad car. Savage made a fortune off Dan Patch. "He was a man who thought big and dreamed bigger," Ms. Smith writes. Dan Patch became America's first "marketing machine" and thus a forerunner of other athletic icons of our modern age.
At the turn of the 20th century, the nation was only beginning to climb out from a financial depression. Deadly labor strikes like Haymarket and Pullman had heightened distrust between labor and capital. It mattered not whether you were an industrialist or a wage earner: You needed a diversion. With the horseless vehicles taking over the roads, everyone sensed something fond and familiar slipping away. No wonder people threw their hats in the air when Dan Patch paced down the stretch. He was everyman's touchstone, an anchor in the choppy seas of progress. He was, in his own time, and for a long time, America's horse.
—Ms. Wall is the author of "How Kentucky Became Southern: A Tale of Outlaws, Horse Thieves, Gambler and Breeders."
A version of this article appeared July 21, 2012, on page C8 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: A Horse in a Hurry.