Reviews for Eighty-Dollar Champion : Snowman, the Horse That Inspired a Nation

Booklist Reviews 2011 September #1
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 more--a 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. Copyright 2011 Booklist Reviews.

BookPage Reviews 2011 September
A big leap for a loveable horse

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 [Wed Aug 27 19:12:50 2014] Wide character in print at E:\websites\aquabrowser\IMCPL\app\site\ line 249. 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.

Copyright 2011 BookPage Reviews.

Kirkus Reviews 2011 June #1

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 Kirkus 2011 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.

Publishers Weekly Reviews 2011 May #2

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 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. (Sept.)

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