Who doesn’t love the story of an underdog…er…horse? With plenty of heart and gusto, two-time novelist Elizabeth Letts’s latest book is the thrilling true story of Snowman, a plow horse that captured the heart of the nation --- and the world. Saved from the slaughterhouse for $80 by a Dutch immigrant with a hunch, this gelding with humble beginnings defied all odds by repeating beating his thoroughbred competition to become the 1958 national champion and winner of the highest honor in horse-jumping: the Triple Crown.
"Every competition [Letts] writes about is infused with energy and excitement as the crowd’s boisterous cheering and each swish of the ladies’ lavish attire echoes off the page."
THE EIGHTY-DOLLAR CHAMPION begins much like Snowman’s career --- slowly. In addition to introducing readers to Harry de Leyer, a 22-year-old from Holland who immigrated to America in 1950 with his wife, Joanna, and $160 in his pocket, Letts sets the scene for what was going on in the country at the time. Five years after World War II, the United States was in the throes of the Cold War, and an anti-German sentiment was still felt among many. A gallon of gas cost 18 cents, the first credit card was introduced (Diner’s Club), and Edward R. Murrow’s “See It Now” was soon to become (in 1951) one of the most popular shows on the newly invented television.
Letts also piles on tons of facts about horses in these first few chapters, seemingly in hopes of linking the story she’s telling to the larger picture. We learn there were six million horses in America in 1950, one for every group of 25 people. In just 10 years’ time, as industry changed in America and horse-drawn plows were replaced by mechanized tractors, the number dwindled by half as horses were no longer needed and executed in droves. While certainly interesting --- especially for those not schooled in the history of horse-raising, buying and selling in America --- these rapid-fire nuggets of information can seem disorienting at times, especially when Letts jumps back and forth between the early 1950s, World War I and even 1866, when the ASPCA was founded to enforce anti-cruelty regulations for horses.
But as soon as Harry and Snowman’s relationship takes center stage, the book gains focus and naturally picks up its pace. After making the transition from tobacco sharecropper to stable boy to riding teacher at the Knox School for Girls in just six years, with a farm and kids of his own, Harry becomes not just a legend-in-the-making on paper, but a multi-dimensional character in which readers can invest. Letts’s love for horses shines through as she describes his first interaction with Snowman, a beaten-down and bloody plow horse destined to be euthanized and sold for dog meat. Even though we know the success story Snowman turns out to be, it’s still a shock to see just how far he and Harry had to go to get there.
Letts fully hits her stride on the horse show circuit. Every competition she writes about is infused with energy and excitement as the crowd’s boisterous cheering and each swish of the ladies’ lavish attire echoes off the page. As Snowman picks up ribbon after ribbon, tension builds, and by the time we reach the Diamond Jubilee --- the 75th annual National Horse Show at Madison Square Garden, in 1958 --- it’s easy to root for the “local yokel with an old farm horse,” often referred to as Cinderella.
The saga of Harry and Snowman’s rise to fame is a golden one. The book’s premise --- and Letts’s clear passion for and extensive knowledge of her subject --- more than makes up for whatever might be lacking in the telling. As she so aptly puts it, “There is one thing no horseman can ever put a price on, and that is heart.” In THE EIGHTY-DOLLAR CHAMPION, that speaks for readers too.