In his new book, "Crazy Good,'' Charles Leerhsen describes wading into the Credit River in Scott County, looking for a legend. He had been given, in strictest confidence, the approximate location of the spot where harness-racing hero Dan Patch had been buried nearly 100 years earlier.
Like the handful of enthusiasts who have kept the cult of the colt intact, Leer-hsen found himself pulled into the orbit of a horse who became a national sensation in the era of patent medicines and whalebone corsets. He wondered whether he might find a fragment of the great pacer's bones, or maybe a bridle rosette. What Leerhsen discovered was something far more valuable: the truth.
Dan Patch's legend began with the fanciful reporting of his era and was cemented in later years with a few notably bad books and a movie. "Crazy Good'' plumbs the considerable lore surrounding this turn-of-the-century celebrity, now largely forgotten save for his zealous torchbearers. Where the Laura Hillenbrand bestseller "Seabiscuit'' created an equine icon, Leer-hsen deconstructs one, revealing the human foibles of Dan's entourage while examining the horse's appeal among the masses and his modern admirers.
Leerhsen follows the "Seabiscuit'' model of weaving Dan's story through the fabric of his time. Horses powered the nation's agriculture and transportation when Dan Patch was born in 1896, and America's development of the Standardbred horse had made harness racing one of its most popular sports.
Then, as now, the country loved its underdogs, and Dan came with a dandy story. The colt was born with a crippled leg and was nearly euthanized when he could not stand and nurse. After pulling the grocery cart of Indiana breeder and shopkeeper Dan Messner, he went on to a magnificent career on the track, first for Messner and later for Minnesota mogul M.W. Savage.
Leerhsen's bright, breezy style illuminates Dan's world in the small-town Midwest: the gossip and class jealousies, county fairs where bananas were considered an exotic snack, ancient horsemen whose animal husbandry had been passed through generations. His wit shines as he plays history detective, sifting the facts from the fertilizer. But as Leerhsen searches for the real Dan -- in the river, in the artifacts saved by fans, in long-gone racing magazines -- he clearly is as captivated by the horse as the Minnesota railbirds who saw Dan pace a mile in an unofficial world-record time of 1 minute, 55 seconds, in 1906.
His exhaustive research reveals a Dan Patch that matches the myth: an intelligent, willing, gentle animal who bowed to his public after his races and pulled Savage's son in a sleigh during the winter. The humans do not fare as well. Savage, in particular, comes off as a charlatan and a greedy egomaniac rather than the "marketing genius'' of popular lore; according to Leerhsen, he claimed to love the horse as a pet but treated Dan as a cash cow, milking him for every penny even as he grew old and lame. The worthless feed supplement that made Savage's fortune included strychnine, and a cornerstone of the legend -- that Savage died of a broken heart, only hours after his beloved horse -- is blown up by the revelation that Savage planned to stuff Dan's carcass and exhibit him even after his death.
Driver Myron McHenry and the horse's second owner, Manley Sturges, routinely rigged races and might have arranged the poisoning of Dan's daughter, the filly Lady Patch, to frighten Messner into selling Dan Patch. But Dan -- like the fictional equine hero Black Beauty -- maintained his nobility while his handlers sampled all seven deadly sins. Even as Leerhsen deflates some of the lore, his sleuthing adds new intrigue and drama to Dan Patch's story.
The rise of the automobile signaled the decline of the horse culture in America, and with it Dan's widespread appeal. Savage's propensity for putting Dan's name and image on everything from an "autobiography'' to toys and washing machines -- making him the first sports star to be used as a marketing tool -- kept his tale alive among collectors and history buffs.
Leerhsen makes it vivid again. He never found any relics that day in the Credit River, but standing in the water, in what he came to consider "liquid Dan Patch,'' he immersed himself in the saga while digging his feet into what lay underneath. While hardcore Dan-natics might flinch at some of his findings, his honest search only enhances a wonderful slice of Minnesota history.
Rachel Blount is a Star Tribune sportswriter whose beat includes Canterbury Park.