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The Eighty Dollar Champion Book Review

Below: Book cover of "The Eighty Dollar Champion" by Elizabeth Letts

Book cover of The Eighty Dollar Champion


This book chronicles the true story of Snowman, a flea-bitten gray horse who, in 1956, was probably a work horse who had lost his job to mechanization. He was sold at auction and loaded onto a truck bound for slaughter.

However, at the last minute an unknown riding instructor for an all-girls school purchased the horse off the slaughterhouse truck for a total of $80.00, including delivery.

Snowman was acquired on the outside chance he would make a lesson horse for the girls, and he did. But when a deeply hidden, exceptional talent for jumping was discovered in the gentle-hearted horse he ultimately carried himself and the dreams of his new owner to the pinnacles of American show-jumping success.

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Snowman and his new owner, Harry de Leyer, were an unlikely pair whose seemingly impossible success keeps the reader cheering for them all through the book. After Harry broke Snowman to ride the easy-going horse seemed to show no interest in jumping.

If it hadn't been for a humorous dare by one of the barn hands at the school Harry may never have unlocked the puzzle to Snowman's exceptional ability. But one day one of the barn hands teasingly asked Harry if he was going to jump that plow-horse over one of the "big jumps" in the arena. The book doesn't specify how tall the "big jump" was, but mentions it was taller than three-feet.

On that day, just for fun with a friendly audience, Harry aimed Snowman for a jump bigger than anything they had ever tried. And...Snowman flew. Apparently, if you were going to make it interesting, Snowman was all in. Harry slowly took the horse over taller and taller jumps that day, ending with clearing a six-feet, six-inches jump with apparent ease.

From that point forward the book details Snowman and Harry's brief but spectacularly successful five-year show jumping career. Snowman remained his laid-back self, often giving lessons to riders at the girls school or happy rides to the de Leyer children between show jumping wins.

His and Harry's stories were both unlikely ones to achieve such incredible success and they became media favorites. Harry, an immigrant from Holland whose show jumping dreams had been dashed by the Nazi occupation of his homeland during World War II, became lovingly known as the Flying Dutchman. Snowman, the former workhorse purchased with collar marks rubbed into his hair from working in harness, became endeared to America as Harry's quiet, gentle-hearted wings.

The book is a medium-paced read, occasionally pausing in the story of Snowman to describe Harry de Leyer's immigration to America from his war-torn homeland, the state of the plummeting horse population in 1950s America, and to give the reader a small look inside the world of show jumping during Snowman's era. The information is interesting and gives the reader a better understanding of the forces at work behind the scenes in Snowman's life.

The book often tugs at your heart strings, but for all happy reasons. It is an improbable, you've-got-to-be-kidding true story that keeps you turning the pages from the beginning to the peaceful ending of Snowman's quiet passing from this life.

The final passages about Snowman's last moments, humanely euthanized at an old age with Harry at his side, may put a lump in your throat or a tear in your eye, but they are brief and emphasize how much "Snowy" was loved and cared for.


"The Eighty Dollar Champion" is a good read. The story is charming and maybe even a bit heartwarming. All through the book you love to silently cheer for Snowman and Harry de Leyer and the improbably ride they took to success together.

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