America, it seems, loves a good horse story. In the wake of the huge success of books and movies like Seabiscuit and Secretariat comes Elizabeth Letts’ poignant chronicle, The Eighty-Dollar Champion.
It is, most likely, the “underdog” aspect of these stories that accounts for their popularity: America cheers for those who can beat overwhelming odds to achieve their dreams. Letts’ narrative about Harry de Leyer, an impoverished Dutch immigrant, and Snowman, a broken-down plowhorse, fits firmly in this genre, but also adds history and perspective on the devastations of Hitler’s war machine, the horse’s place in American culture and the art, skill, social structure and politics of the equestrian sport of show jumping. Letts’ tale, set mostly in the ’50s, is written in evocative, skilled prose that rings true to the tenor of postwar America, when new social structures were evolving as America was shifting from an agrarian, small-town society to one more mechanized and suburban. This backdrop of social evolution would play an important role in Snowman and Harry’s story.
After the hardscrabble years following his immigration to America, Harry worked as a riding instructor at a private girls’ school, and was able to establish a small horse farm on the side. In the winter of 1956, he was late to a horse auction, where he had hoped to buy a mount for the school’s use. Harry spotted a truckload of horses meant for the slaughterhouse; one skinny white-grey horse in the bunch stood calmly—and looked him straight in the eye. Harry bought the animal for $80 and took him home, where one of his kids piped up, “Look, Daddy, he has snow all over him. He looks just like a snowman.”
Harry nourished the gentle horse back to health, put him to work at the school, then subsequently sold him to a neighbor. But Snowman loved Harry and kept jumping the high paddock fences to return home. Impressed with Snowman’s devotion and jumping talent, Harry trained him and indulged his own love of show jumping, gradually entering the horse in local competitions and persisting until he made the cut for prestigious national competitions.
Amid the high-strung thoroughbreds, the media hoopla and the white-tie-and-tails society that surrounds the show-jumping circuit, Snowman and Harry, humble and homespun in appearance and manners, awed the crowds that were hungry for a champion to cherish. The “teddy bear” horse and his loving owner eventually leapt their way to national and international acclaim. Letts deftly calibrates the emotion and suspense that are an indelible part of this tale, which, at its end, may bring a tear or two.