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Harness Racing in Kansas

Anderson County fair posterThe whirring of sulky wheels and rapid hoof beats on a dirt track thrilled Kansas fair-goers in the late 19th century. Harness racing was a highlight at many county and state fairs and satisfied the audience’s need for speed.

In harness racing, horses pull lightweight sulkies, a single seat cart with two wire wheels, and compete on a one-mile circular dirt track. The driver carries a light whip, for which use is restricted by frequency and severity. The horses are either trotters or pacers. Trotters move together their opposite front and hind legs. Pacers, the faster and more popular of the two, move together their front and hind legs on the same side.

Colorful fair posters with illustrations of harness racing helped draw spectators to events around the state. With the sport’s popularity, several successful race farms emerged in Kansas. Horses became well known in their own right and drew fans who came to watch them race. These superstars went on to produce legions of famous and successful offspring.  View these colorful fair posters in Kansas Memory.

Jewett Stock Farm in Cheney was one of the more successful racing farms in Kansas and home to Patchen Wilkes, “a magnificent specimen of a well-bred trotter” with “lofty carriage and splendid conformation.” The trotter was known for his bad temper, but he produced a number of competitive offspring. Breeder Henry C. Jewett of Buffalo, New York, operated the farm as an expansion of his New York facilities. Jewett sold Patchen Wilkes in 1896 for $10,025, and all his stock because, he told the New York Times “he feared if he reserved any this would cause him to continue the fascinating pursuit of breeding.”

At the 1879 Kansas State Fair, Elmo Pilot and Joe Young competed for the title. The Topeka Commonwealth said it was close the “first three quarters, but just before reaching the homestretch, Joe Young came to the front and led under the wire by a rail length, winning the heat.” Joe Young is buried in a standing position near his hometown in Peabody. He sired Josephine Young, who was bred to Patchen Wilkes. Their colt, Joe Patchen, and his offspring, Dan Patch, became stars.

Born in 1889 in Peabody, Joe Patchen had extremely long legs and was called the “iron race horse of the age.” In 1899 Topeka Mail and Breeze wrote, “Patchen’s untiring courage as a race-horse seems to be without peer.” He eventually sold for $22,500 and sired more than one hundred foals. Dan Patch, the most famous of his offspring, was foaled in 1896 in Oxford, Indiana.

So popular was Dan Patch that the Kansas State Fair in Topeka designated September 14, 1904, in his honor. He was to attempt breaking one of his own speed records. Unfortunately, he became seriously ill the day before. Veterinarians examined him and many doubted he would survive. He did recover but not in time to race at the Kansas State Fair. The newspaper reported that 15,000 people attended the race in hopes of seeing the famous trotter. “Thank heaven Dan is now getting well,” said his owner Marion Willis Savage, in the Topeka Daily Capital. “The surgeons tell me that he is now out of all danger. I think that we will leave him here for a while.” The popular harness horse continued racing until his death in 1916.

Prairie Dell Farm of Topeka, owned by Robert Ives Lee, was another of Kansas’ well-known race farms. Lee kept up to 25 stallions and 150 mares and operated a half-mile racetrack on the 320-acre farm. Robert McGregor, an impressive chestnut stallion, was called “Monarch of the Home Stretch.” He sired Creceus, the one stallion that held the world’s trotting record. Lee helped improve the quality of trotting horses in Kansas and organized the first horse fair in Kansas. He closed the farm and sold the horses in 1908. In 1973 the Kansas Historical Society acquired the 80 acres, where its headquarters are now located.

Entry: Harness Racing in Kansas

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: August 2010

Date Modified: June 2011

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.