Tag Archives: harness racing

Hanover Horses

Waco Hanover and Donnie MacAdams photo Barbara LivingstonA Facebook share – Waco Hanover celebrates his 40th birthday in 2017. He’s a Standardbred pacer, living in Vermont.

From his name, I knew he was of Hanover Shoe Farms. I’ve read Donald P. Evans’ Hanover: The greatest name in harness racing. It tells the story of a Pennsylvania racing and breeding stable that the Hanover Shoe Company owners started at the turn of the 20th century.

About ten years ago, after reading the book, I read online about Ralph Hanover who won the US pacing Triple Crown in 1983. He was the only Canadian-owned horse to do so. I learned that Ralph Ralph Hanover racing photo Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Famehad lived at Grand Royal Farms near Calton, Ontario. It is a magnificent property, one you know has seen days of glory. It was past those days when I knew it, but it was still a working horse farm.

So Ralph Hanover and Grand Royal, what were their stories?

The story of Grand Royal was easy to find. It had been a large Standardbred stable in southwestern Ontario. Then it went to Thoroughbred racing. Then it changed hands several times and its racing days were over.

mare and foal Grand Royal 1980s photo Elgin County Archives
Standardbred mare and foal, Grand Royal Farms, Calton ON, late 1980s

Finding out about Ralph Hanover proved more difficult. I googled and asked anyone I knew in the horse business. He went to Kentucky to stand at stud. Then he’d gone to Prince Edward Island, maybe. Alive? Nobody knew.

Reading about Waco Hanover now, I wondered how closely related he was to Ralph. My go-to horse pedigree site told me Waco Hanover, born 1977, is the son of Tar Heel and Wanda Hanover. Tar Heel was son of Billy Direct and Leta Long. Wow, Billy Direct was the horse who matched Dan Patch’s record 1:55 mile in 1938.

Tar Heel was Ralph Hanover’s maternal grandsire. Ralph was born in 1980, sired by Meadow Skipper out of Ravina Hanover. So Waco and Ralph’s mother are half-siblings, making Waco Ralph’s uncle.

Ralph Hanover Waco Hanover pedigree by Dorothy Stewart
Ralph and Waco Hanover pedigree chart (click for larger view)

Then I google Ralph. Right at the top are articles about his death in October 2008 at the age of 28. He lived in Dutton, West Elgin, Ontario. In 2008 I lived in St. Thomas, a half hour drive from Dutton.

West Elgin Horse Farms

In July 2008, we went on a tour of West Elgin horse farms. One was a harness racing stable. I talked to the owner, but did not ask about Ralph Hanover. If I had, he likely would have told me that Ralph lived a few concession roads over. Ralph lived on the Mac Lilley farm.

One of the owners of Grand Royal Farms in its harness racing heyday was Doug Lilley. Googling hasn’t given me the connection between Mac and Doug, but the Mac Lilley Farms website says it’s a three-generation operation.

Ralph Hanover and Ron Waples horseracinghalloffame.com/1986/01/01
Ralph Hanover and Ron Waples, Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame 1986 inductees

So the lesson from this? Google, drive around, ask – and keep asking and driving. One good chat at the Western Fair race track probably would have told me where Ralph Hanover was. And keep googling. I might not have found out about Ralph until he died, since that’s what most of the results were about, but at least I’d have known eight years earlier.

Finding Ralph, too late, has made me think about the famous horses meeting their fans at the Hall of Champions in the Kentucky Horse Park (see my Cigar). And Dan Patch’s towns, Oxford, Indiana and Savage, Minnesota, making sure that visitors know they’re entering hallowed horse racing ground (see my Dan Patch). Ralph Hanover was among the elite of racehorse champions. Dutton deserves to be proud of being his final hometown. I only wish I’d known he was there, so close by.

Dan Patch

Dan Patch was a harness racing horse, a pacer. He was crazy good, they said. 110 years ago, he was the best pacer ever seen. He was a Harness racing Dan Patch Breeder_and_sportsman_mag_1911_wikicommonshuge celebrity in the US, the first multi-million dollar sports superstar.

His story is told in Charles Leerhsen’s 2010 book Crazy Good. You will enjoy it even if you know nothing about harness racing. It’s a story of triumph over adversity, of middle America at the dawn of the automobile age, and of the hucksterism that Americans do so well.

Crazy Good: The true story of Dan Patch - Amazon link
Click for Amazon link

Dan Patch was born in Oxford, Indiana in 1896 to Zelica, a mare obscure in Standardbred breeding history. His sire, Joe Patchen, was well known for both his speed and his bad temper.

At birth, Dan Patch’s prospects seemed zero. His left rear leg was misshapen. His owner Dan Messner was advised to put him down. But he didn’t. For the history of harness racing, and for Dan Patch, that was a very wise decision. Dan Patch learned to walk, then run.

Dan was a natural. He loved to race and he loved audiences. As his star rose, other parties became interested in him. With a new owner, he went to the big time. That’s when the hucksterism started. Not by Dan Patch, who simply continued to run the very best he could, but by Marion W. Savage, his new owner. At Savage’s International Stock Food Company farm near Minneapolis, Dan Patch lived out the rest of his days. When he wasn’t travelling the country in his own rail car.

T-Eaton-Co- photo Dan_Patch_wikicommonsDan Patch never lost a race. Horse owners became unwilling to enter their horses against him. So Savage promoted exhibition races with Dan running only against the clock. Dan set a record in September 1906 at the Minnesota State Fair with a mile in 1:55. That time was not officially recognized because a windshield was used. Dan Patch’s official mile record was 1:55:¼ set in Lexington KY in 1905. His unofficial record was not matched until 1938 when Billy Direct paced a mile in 1:55. It wasn’t beaten until 1960.

Dan Patch Two Step (for piano)

Dan Patch coffee can from ctpost.com
from ctpost.com March 22 2012

Savage was an odd man, very successful at selling himself and products. However much he may or may not have known about horses, he knew a lot about marketing. And market Dan Patch, he did. Dan’s image and name were on livestock feed, tobacco, a railway and everything in between. He even gets a mention in The Music Man.

For horse people, Dan Patch didn’t need a front man. His talent spoke for itself. But Savage’s marketing of Dan and racing made both better known to a public much larger than harness racing fans.

Dan Patch died July 11, 1916. Marion W. Savage died one day later. By that time, harness racing had ceased being a major national sport.Dan-Patch-Line-MN-Bachman-farm workers load train car-wikicommons

If, like me, you’d like to do a pilgrimage to the homes of Dan Patch, check Dan Patch Historical Society in Savage MN for places and events. Also look for “Dan Patch Days” in Oxford IN.