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The Eighty-Dollar Champion
Cover of The Eighty-Dollar Champion
The Eighty-Dollar Champion
Snowman, The Horse That Inspired a Nation
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#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • The dramatic and inspiring story of a man and his horse, an unlikely duo whose rise to stardom in the sport of show jumping captivated the nation...
#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • The dramatic and inspiring story of a man and his horse, an unlikely duo whose rise to stardom in the sport of show jumping captivated the nation...
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  • #1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • The dramatic and inspiring story of a man and his horse, an unlikely duo whose rise to stardom in the sport of show jumping captivated the nation  

    Harry de Leyer first saw the horse he would name Snowman on a truck bound for the slaughterhouse. The recent Dutch immigrant recognized the spark in the eye of the beaten-up nag and bought him for eighty dollars. On Harry’s modest farm on Long Island, he ultimately taught Snowman how to fly. Here is the dramatic and inspiring rise to stardom of an unlikely duo. One show at a time, against extraordinary odds and some of the most expensive thoroughbreds alive, the pair climbed to the very top of the sport of show jumping. Their story captured the heart of Cold War–era America—a story of unstoppable hope, inconceivable dreams, and the chance to have it all. They were the longest of all longshots—and their win was the stuff of...

Excerpts-

  • Chapter One

    The Kills

    New Holland, Pennsylvania, 1956

    The largest horse auction east of the Mississippi was held every Monday deep in Pennsylvania Amish Country. Anyone with the time to drive out to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and a good eye for a horse could find a decent mount at a reasonable price, especially if he arrived early.

    The New Holland auction was founded in 1900 and hadn't changed much since. Farmers and their families drove to the auction in their buggies. Wives gossiped while children played and enjoyed the festive atmosphere. Vendors sold hot pretzels and sugared fasnacht doughnuts. Farmers gathered on benches around the sides of the big covered arena while the auctioneer called out the merits of the horses. Each prospective purchase trotted across the ring just once. The auctioneer had a habit of saying, "Yessiree, this horse is sound."

    Horses arrived at the auction from near and far-the racetracks at Pimlico and Delaware Park unloaded thoroughbreds that were too slow to race. Trainers with sharp eyes and generous budgets scouted them out as show prospects. Farmers brought plow horses that could no longer plow; riding stable owners sold decent horses to raise quick cash. Sadly, many of the horses for sale arrived here only after having exchanged hands one too many times: they were good enough, but past their prime-tired hunters, outgrown ponies, shopworn show horses. Among these sturdy, well-trained hacks, Harry hoped to find a quiet lesson horse for his riding pupils at the Knox School.

    For all of their size and strength, horses are surprisingly fragile creatures. Bearing tremendous weight on their slender legs, they are subject to all manner of lameness-bone spavins, pricked feet, broken knees, corns. Some have faults of confirmation that put unnecessary strain on their legs. Some have been ill used-jumped too much or ridden too hard.

    A smart salesman knows how to camouflage some of these faults; he can hold a lead rope tight to hide the bobbing head of a lame horse. He can bandage to reduce swelling or mix a painkiller into the horse's bran mash. Most common of all, he can hope that in the blur of a fast trot across an auction ring, a potential buyer will be swayed by flashy coloring or a nicely set head, and overlook any flaws.

    But Harry knew horses. He had confidence in his judgment. With a budget of only eighty dollars, he knew the thoroughbreds would be out of his reach. Even the slow ones sold in the hundreds, if not the thousands. But with his keen eye, Harry believed he could spot an older horse who was well trained and reasonably priced.

    On a typical day outside the auction grounds, teams of horses still hitched to their buggies would be tied up alongside cars with out-of- state license plates. Big racetrack vans flanked two-horse trailers owned by hopeful backyard buyers.

    By the end of the auction, two to three hundred horses would have been trotted through the arena, looked over, bid upon, and sold. For some horses, the transaction would be their salvation-a dud on the racetrack snatched up to be groomed as a horse show star. For others, it was a step down-a retired show horse might be sold as a lesson horse. At the end of every auction, there were always a few that found no buyers: the ones whose lameness couldn't be masked, the sour- tempered ones who lashed out with hooves and teeth, the broken-down ones who stumbled their way into the ring.

    But no horse left New Holland unsold.

    The same man always made the final bid: the kill buyer. He purchased horses for the slaughterhouse so that their carcasses could be ground up for dog food and their hooves boiled down into...

About the Author-

  • Elizabeth Letts is the award-winning author of two novels, Quality of Care and Family Planning, and one children's book, The Butter Man. Quality of Care was a Literary Guild, Doubleday Book Club, and Books-A-Million Book Club selection. An equestrian from childhood, Letts represented California as a junior equestrian, and was runner-up in the California Horse and Rider of the Year competition. She currently lives with her husband and four children in Baltimore, Maryland.

Reviews-

  • Publisher's Weekly

    May 9, 2011
    Letts (Quality of Care) raises expectations in her newest book by claiming national inspiration in the subtitle. Snowman was a plow horse bought off the slaughter truck for $80 by Danish immigrant Harry de Leyer. Snowman's appearance masked superior jumping talents, and de Leyer took him to the top of the "expensive.... equestrian world was one of the last bastions of the upper-class elite." The events occurred in the late 1950s and early 1960s; however, Letts doesn't quite establish the context, and it's not clear how a horse provided inspiration for workers "starved for dreams" amid "terrifying fears of nuclear age tensions." Diversions such as the decline of the American horse population offer little insight, and nonequestrians will occasionally be puzzled by the lingo, particularly with respect to equine anatomy. Still, Letts is a solid prose stylist; her vivid descriptions of staid Long Island with its "gentle meadows ringed by dogwood trees" provide virtual tours, but it is de Leyer's realization of the American dream that is the real story. Photos.

  • Kirkus

    June 1, 2011

    Two long shots, a blue-collar owner and his unlikely horse, make it to the top of the equestrian world.

    Responding to the postwar American demand for farm labor, young Harry de Leyer emigrated from Holland and settled in Long Island, and his talent with horses earned him a job as riding master at an all-girls boarding school. Arriving late to an auction in 1956, he offered $80 for a flea-bitten, undernourished, gray gelding, already loaded onto a slaughterhouse truck. His kids dubbed the lumbering, 8-year-old former plow horse Snowman, and the animal's sweet disposition made him a favorite among the Knox School's novice riders. Indeed, de Leyer turned a small profit reselling Snowman to a neighbor seeking a docile mount for his daughter. Only when Snowman repeatedly jumped his paddock fence to return to de Leyer's farm did the trainer belatedly recognize the horse's hidden talent. In telling how de Leyer turned Snowman's untapped potential into a two-time National Horse Show champion, novelist Letts (Family Planning, 2006, etc.) strains too hard to portray the story as an antidote to an era—economic downturn and nuclear dread notwithstanding, the late '50s were hardly as desperate as she makes out—but she's dead right about the unprecedented media environment—glossies and newspapers still flourished, TV was firmly established—that catapulted Snowman's legend well beyond the privileged confines of the show-jumping aficionados. An experienced equestrienne, Letts perfectly understands the high-society horse world, the politics and the intricacies of the high-jump competitions and the challenges facing a low-budget arriviste. At its core, though, this is the story of de Leyer and Snowman, about the elusive qualities that make a champion jumper and the special gifts required to read a horse's signals. Readers skittish around sentiment may balk, but Letts' gentle touch proves entirely suitable to this genuinely sweet tale.

    A heartwarming story begging for the Disney treatment.

    (COPYRIGHT (2011) KIRKUS REVIEWS/NIELSEN BUSINESS MEDIA, INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.)

  • Booklist

    September 1, 2011
    In 1956, Harry De Leyer, a riding instructor at a Long Island girls' school, spent $80 on a horse that was bound for the slaughterhouse. He thought the animal might make a good horse for his students. But the horse, named Snowman by Harry's four-year-old daughter, turned out to be much morea champion show-jumper. This book is sure to appeal to fans of Laura Hillenbrand's Seabiscuit (2001) and William Nack's Big Red of Meadow Stable (1975), about Secretariat, but should exert appeal beyond that of its equine theme. The school at which De Leyer worked, the Knox School, was, Letts says, a relic from another era, an intensely disciplined place dedicated to self-improvement, where little room remained for relaxation or levity. In the mid-1950s, the place seemed an anachronism, and Letts does an excellent job of contrasting the staid atmosphere of the school with the world outside. A fascinating, extremely well-told story.(Reprinted with permission of Booklist, copyright 2011, American Library Association.)

  • Gwen Cooper, author of Homer's Odyssey "This is a wonderful book--joyous, heartfelt, and an eloquent reminder that hope can be found in the unlikeliest of places. Most of all, it's a moving testament to the incredible things that can grow from the bond between animals and humans. If you love a great animal tale, you'll love this book!"
  • Karen Abbott, author of American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare: The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee "The moving story of an indomitable immigrant farmer, his equally spirited horse, and their against-the-odds journey all the way to the winner's circle, The Eighty-Dollar Champion fascinates from the first page to the last. Elizabeth Letts has uncovered a forgotten slice of American history and brought it to magical life."
  • W. Bruce Cameron, author of A Dog's Purpose "A fun and wonderfully detailed story about a most remarkable bond between a man and his horse. You will fall in love with the eighty-dollar champion."
  • Mary Doria Russell, author of Doc "Not only a heartwarming tale of the bond between human and horse, but also a fascinating look at the the Eisenhower years, when faulty memory tells us that America was placid and conformist."

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Snowman, The Horse That Inspired a Nation
Elizabeth Letts
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