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.”
Harry de Leyer was born in the small village of St. Oedenrode, Holland, in 1928. His father was a prosperous brewer and president of the local Dutch version of the 4-H. One of twelve children, Harry grew up working on his family farm, riding on the farm horses after his chores were done.
His dreams of becoming a professional rider were dashed when his village was occupied by the Nazis during World War II. Although only a teenager, Harry worked with the Resistance, smuggling food through Nazi checkpoints in a horse drawn cart.
After the war, he and his wife emigrated to the United States with $160 and a small wooden crate holding all their belongings — including Harry’s worn leather saddle and riding boots. Harry went to work as a tenant farmer, but when his gift for training horses emerged, he was offered a job as a riding instructor at the Knox School in New York.
With Snowman, Harry began a career as one of the most successful riders and trainers in America. He represented the United States at the World Championships in Gothenborg, Sweden in 1983 and was recognized by the United States Equestrian Foundation with a Pegasus Medal of Honor in 2002 for his lifetime contribution to the sport.
Now 83, the “Galloping Grandfather” is training yet another generation of riders.
From the collection of Harry de Leyer, used by permission
In his first eight years of life, Snowman had pulled a plow, suffered neglect, been given up for dog meat, adopted by the de Leyers, nursed back to health and turned into a lesson horse. But this eighty-dollar gelding, this shaggy-coated, children-loving animal had hidden his gifts under the plainest, most humble exterior. He was the horse Harry de Leyer had dreamed of — the horse with the makings of a champion.Only two years after his rescue, Snowman won the 1958 horse show Triple Crown — the American Horse Shows Association Horse of the Year, Professional Horseman’s Association Champion and Champion of Madison Square Garden’s Diamond Jubilee. The following year, he was again the American Horse Shows Association Horse of the Year and Professional Horseman’s Association Champion. After each of these wins, Harry and Snowman returned home to their day jobs as a riding instructor and lesson horse.
An instant celebrity, Snowman appeared on the most popular game show of its time, “To Tell the Truth” and on the “Tonight Show,” where the young guest host, Johnny Carson, climbed up a stepladder and scrambled onto Snowman’s back. He was profiled twice in Life magazine, was the subject of two books, had his own fan club, became a Breyer horse model and was even flown abroad for “guest appearances.”
Snowman retired from competition in 1962 and in 1969, he and Harry were invited to return to Madison Square Garden for a belated and triumphant retirement ceremony. Snowman died at home in 1974 with Harry by his side. He was inducted into the Show Jumping Hall of Fame in 1992.
Photo by Bill Ray, used by permission
Praise for The Eighty Dollar Champion
“A heartwarming story begging for the Disney treatment.”
“[T]he classic American dream story, with a down-on-its-luck horse galloping in for a good measure”