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November 1958: the National Horse Show at Madison Square Garden in New York City. In the rarefied atmosphere of wealth and tradition, sleek hotheaded thoroughbreds piloted by seasoned professionals waited their turn to take on a course of towering jumps. Into the ring trotted the most unlikely competitors — a drab white former plow horse named Snowman and a young riding instructor named Harry de Leyer. They were the longest of all long shots and their win would become the stuff of legend.
Harry de Leyer first saw the horse he would name Snowman on a bleak February afternoon between the slats of a rickety truck bound for the slaughterhouse. The big gray horse had matted hair, open wounds on both knees and harness marks across his chest. He was as plain and friendly as a favorite mutt. A man’s best friend kind of horse Harry decided. He bought him for $80.
On Harry’s modest farm on Long Island, the horse thrived. Snowman was wonderful with Harry’s children and had all the makings of a quiet lesson mount. But the recent Dutch immigrant and his growing family needed money and Harry was always on the lookout for the perfect thoroughbred to train for the show-jumping circuit, so he reluctantly sold Snowman to a farm a few miles down the road. But Snowman just wouldn’t stay put, and kept returning to the de Leyer’s farm. Then it dawned on Harry that Snowman was leaping six-foot fences to get home — an extraordinary feat for a riderless horse who had never been taught to jump. Harry bought him back and began training him over jumps. The higher they were, the better Snowman liked them.
One horse show at a time and against extraordinary odds, the pair rose to the very top of the sport of show jumping — poor country mice competing against the most expensive thoroughbreds in the world. Their story captured the heart of a Cold War world desperate for a symbol of second chances, of big dreams, of unstoppable hope.
The Eighty-Dollar Champion tells the dramatic and powerful true story of this unlikely duo’s rise to stardom—from the de Leyer family farm in Harry’s native Holland, through the horrors of the Nazi occupation, to his hope of a new life in America, where Harry’s spirit and drive were matched by those of the plow horse he had saved from the slaughterhouse. As Letts writes, “The message is simple: never give up, even when the obstacles seem sky-high. There is something extraordinary in all of us.”