By Ken Zurski
In 1902, a Standardbred racer named Prince Alert became the first “hobbled” horse to pace a mile in under two-minutes, a benchmark that harness horses break today in nearly every race. But times have changed, and horses run faster today thanks to advancements in breeding and training. However, in Prince Alert’s time, breaking a two-minute mile was a big deal indeed.
Also being “hobbled” didn’t mean that Prince Alert was limp or disabled. It meant he wore hobbles or leather straps on its legs to help maintain a smooth gait.
Prince Alert was considered the ‘Undisputed King of Hobbled Pacers,” but wearing the straps also carried a tag in the horse’s record. Other horses were winning big races without “hobbles,” including one of the greatest Dan Patch, who is considered even to this day as the most popular race horse of all time.
That’s because at the turn of the 20th century, harness racing was the country’s most popular sport and Dan Patch was its undisputed star. Patch captured a nation with his rags to riches story and his uncanny ability to win, a lot, wherever he went and on any number of off-surface, in the middle of nowhere, tracks. Where Dan Patch went, large crowds followed. Soon, his likeness appeared on everything from cereal to cigar boxes to washing machines. He was, as one writer noted, “the first celebrity endorser.” By default horses that ran against Patch also became news, like Prince Alert, who wore the hobbles, while Patch did not.
But Prince Alert’s legacy is different than Patch’s in this regard:
Prince Alert was a “hop horse.”
In today’s lexicon a “hop horse” or a horse who is “hopped up” means they were deliberately doped to win. Back then, this affirmation didn’t come with the same stigma as it does in today’s era of synthetic performance enhancers. In the early 20th century, “hopping” a horse meant something else entirely. Mainly the use of stimulants like alcohol or caffeine to boost a horse’s confidence or endurance.
In Prince Alert’s case, it wasn’t even a secret. Alert’s trainer Matt Demarest openly acknowledged giving his horse “extra strong coffee and whiskey” to beat the great Dan Patch. “If I thought the horse would be improved by champagne,” he told the Chicago Tribune,” I would see he got it.”
In the end, however, it was Dan Patch who got the last laugh. Not only did he soundly defeat horses like Prince Alert, but the irony in victory was farcical.
Even if the horses were “hopped up” on whiskey, as many apparently were, it was Dan Patch, the horse and the brand, that was featured on the bottle’s label.