Tag Archives: harness racing

Harness Racing Mabees

Looking into a branch of the Mabee family led me to harness racing in Tillsonburg during the early decades of the 1900s. Three names stood out: Jack M. Climie, Charles Henry Mabee and Dudey Patch.

Jack M. Climie was everywhere – as a driver, race starter and caller at Tillsonburg track 1945-standardbredcanada.ca_news_8-14-10_sc-rewindthe harness racing track at the Tillsonburg Fair Grounds. A plaque in town honours his service to the Tri-County Agricultural Society, hosts of the annual fair. Then, in my search results, Dudey Patch in connection with J. M. Climie. What’s this about?

Dudey Patch

Dudey-Patch-canadian-horse-racing-hall-of-fameJ. M. Climie drove five year old Dudey Patch in his first ever race, in Tillsonburg in 1936. Dudey Patch, I thought, must be related to Dan Patch, the American harness racing superstar of the early 1900s. Yes, a grandson. His sire was Gilbert Patch, Dan Patch’s son, and his dam unknown.

Dudey Patch moved on to Prince Edward Island and trainer Joe O’Brien. With Mr. O’Brien, he broke pacing records until he retired in 1941. He was named to the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame in 1998.

dudey patch 1931 allbreedpedigree.com
Dudey Patch 1931 by Gilbert Patch out of unknown mare (allbreedpedigree.com)

Mabee cousins

Jack Climie was married to Marie Ailene Mabee. She was a first cousin of Charles Henry Mabee. His father, George Henry, was the eldest of Oliver Pitt Mabee and Mary Laur’s ten children. Marie’s father, Frederick, was the youngest.

Their lineage intersects with my grandmother’s four generations back, with half brothers Frederick and Silas Mabee. Charles and Marie’s line comes from Frederick, son of Simon Mabee and his first wife Marie Landrin. My grandmother Murel Mabee Anger was the great-great granddaughter of Silas, son of Simon Mabee and his second wife.

charles-mabee-tree-dstewart
Chart showing Charles Henry Mabee and cousins – click/tap to enlarge

Charles Henry Mabee’s five siblings all died in their teens or younger. He married Frances Elizabeth Bradburn and they had three children. He died at age 45, after an accident at the Tillsonburg track in May 1916.

Bert Newman, in More Reminiscences About Tillsonburg, writes:

I believe the man who was best known in Tillsonburg horse racing circles was Charlie Mabee. He was a former mayor of Tillsonburg, and he kept a string of horses. He drove all his own horses, too. I remember his boys and I went to school with one of them, Basil. One day Charlie was working a horse on the track when it stumbled or something. He was thrown over the sulky and fell onto the track, breaking his neck. He died right there on the race track. [1987:24]

Tillsonburg Race Track

Mr. Newman describes the Tillsonburg track and races at the time:

Right across from the grandstand was the judges’ stand, with the wire stretched across in front. All the judges would be in there – three or four of them. The starter would have a big Nov 24-2018-standardbred canada-rewind-starters-horn-photo-Gary-Foerstermegaphone in his hand and his duty was to get these horses off to an equal start. It was very difficult in those days because sometimes they’d come down to the wire all scattered out. Many times I saw the judge call them back. They would try again, sometimes three or four times…

In later years all the trouble with getting horses started was eliminated by the use of a starting gate. I believe Art Whitesell and Jack Climie had much to do with inventing a starting gate to use on the Tillsonburg track. [1987:23]

My googling also turned up a recent book about Tillsonburg’s history. It’s Tillsonburg Album: A photographic history by Matthew Scholtz, available in Tillsonburg or on this website.

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 in East Elgin County, 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. I took riding lessons there.

Ralph Hanover and Grand Royal farm?

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. 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 wonder how closely related he was to Ralph. My go-to horse pedigree site tells 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 (by Tar Heel). So Ralph’s mother and Waco are half-siblings, making Waco Ralph’s sort-of 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. And publicize it! I only wish I’d known he was there, so close by.

*Waco Hanover passed away February 11, 2019 at the age of 42. He will be missed by all his friends, but especially Donnie MacAdams. My condolences to Waco’s family, and may he rest in peace.

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.

Harness Racing Lineage

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.

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

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 (piano sheet music)

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.