The Eighty-Dollar Champion: Snowman, the Horse That Inspired a Nation by Elizabeth Letts. Ballantine Books 2011.
Harry de Leyer first laid eyes on Snowman at a horse auction in February of 1956. Harry gave riding lessons at The Knox School, a private school for girls, and on this day he was looking for a quiet school horse to add to his stable. Delayed by bad weather, he arrived late and the auction had already concluded. Not wanting to waste his trip, Harry looked over the auction rejects, the horses that were bound for slaughter. One big white fellow caught his eye, and Harry asked to take a closer look at him. Something about the horse spoke to Harry and he decided to take a chance on the gelding. He purchased the horse for $80. It was the beginning of a life-changing relationship for both of them.
Named Snowman by the de Leyer family, the new horse soon proved to be a quiet, reliable mount. When a neighbour came looking for a good horse for his beginner son to ride, Harry sold Snowman to him, knowing the horse would have a good home. But Snowman had other ideas. For Snowman, Harry’s stable was home. It was where he wanted to be. And he returned home, jumping whatever fences needed jumping to get there, several times before Harry bought him back. Could it be that the horse had a hidden talent as a jumper?
When Harry rescued Snowman from the knacker’s truck, his scars showed that he had been used as a plow horse. And yet, by 1958 Snowman was jumping at the country’s most prestigious show at Madison Square Gardens. He became the first horse in history to win the Professional Horsemens’ Association and American Horse Shows Association Horse of the Year honors two years in a row.
Letts does a good job of telling Snowman’s rag-to-riches Cinderella story. At a time when the horse show circuit was dominated by rich amateurs with expensive thoroughbreds, Snowman stole the hearts of people across America. He even became a TV star of sorts, appearing on The Tonight Show with a young Johnny Carson. The Eighty-Dollar Champion is also the story of Harry, a Dutch immigrant looking to find a place for himself in a new land, his wife and their brood of children.
I was familiar with Snowman’s story, having long ago read Rutherford Montgomery’s 1962 account titled simply Snowman. I still enjoyed this fresh telling of Snowman’s tale. Letts provides interesting background information about the horse trade, Knox and it pupils, New York society and other details. At the time Snowman found himself bound for the meat market, the horse was being replaced on farms across America by tractors and mechanized equipment. Letts observes that this change at least meant that people who didn’t care for horses didn’t have to own them. Yet, more than 50 years later, some things haven’t changed. You can still go down to the Kitchener Stockyards in Ontario and find many perfectly sound horses being dumped by their owners. Some still find homes with riding stables. The ones who aren’t so lucky still end up at the slaughter-house. Thoroughbreds and Standardbreds live perilous lives. For many in the business, horses are just a commodity, and for every winner, there are many losers who live hard lives.
My favorite element in Snowman’s story is Harry’s loyalty to his beloved horse. When Snowman was at his peak, Harry was offered a small fortune for his jumping star. With a large family to support, Harry could surely have used the money. But he didn’t sell Snowman. Instead, Snowman retired to pasture on de Leyer’s farm and peacefully lived out his days until his death from kidney failure at the age of 26.