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TERRI SCHLICHENMEYER: Aging plow horse becomes a heron in "Eighty-Dollar Champion"

“The Eighty-Dollar Champion” by Elizabeth Letts, copyright 2011 by Ballantine Books, is 333 pages and sells for $26.

“The Eighty-Dollar Champion” by Elizabeth Letts, copyright 2011 by Ballantine Books, is 333 pages and sells for $26.

They said you were worthless. You'd never amount to anything.

No good. Not worth the time. And just like that, you were written off, completely and irrevocably dismissed.

Discouraging? Yes, but scenes like this tend to fan the spark of defiance inside each of us, compelling us to boldly prove the naysayers wrong, thus ultimately creating fist-shakingly strong human beings.

As you'll see in the new book "The Eighty-Dollar Champion" by Elizabeth Letts, such discouraging words also work for horses, too.

By the time he left Holland, bound for America, Harry de Leyer had seen plenty.

As the eldest of his parents' dozen children, he'd braved the Nazis and risked his life for family and neighbors. He'd met hardship. So when he immigrated to America with his wife, a trunkful of possessions and $160, he was eager for opportunity.

He found it: by the mid-1950s, the de Leyers had succeeded enough to buy a small farm on Long Island.

A horseman at birth, Harry was the riding instructor at a posh girls' school near his home when, in early 1956 and late to a horse sale, he spotted a ragged gray gelding on its way to slaughter. He was always looking for gentle steeds for his students. Something in the animal's demeanor made Harry pull out his bankroll.

Cleaned up, the horse was rather pretty; "fleabitten," as horsemen would say. He'd seen the harness of a plow, but he was friendly, easy-going and steady, a willing pupil. Snowman, as Harry's children named him, would be perfect for Harry's students. The animal's $80 cost was money well-spent.

At the end of the school year, with no room at his own stable, Harry sold Snowman to a nearby doctor, but Snowman had other ideas. Like a faithful mutt, the horse kept returning to Harry's barn, leaping several fences to get there.

Then one day, in Harry's mind, everything clicked: this horse was a jumper. With a little work, he might be able to win a few competitions. With training, Snowman might, in some small way, fulfill one of Harry's dreams.

Author Elizabeth Letts says that in the late 1950s, when Snowman rocked the horse world and word spread like wildfire, people needed a hero. Even now, we love an underdog story. But "The Eighty Dollar Champion" jumps well over that.

It's difficult, if not impossible, to avoid wanting to cheer while reading this book. Though we can surmise by its cover what happens, Letts lends a definite edge-of-your-seat feeling to the story of Harry de Leyer and his unlikely dream-maker, and she does it by pulling readers back to mid-last-century: the times, the newsmakers, fashions, and myriad reasons why the nation held its breath as an aging gray plow horse flew over nearly-inconceivably high barriers.

I don't think you have to be a horse lover to enjoy this heartwarming true story about a couple of survivors, and love. No, for most readers, I think "The Eighty-Dollar Champion" is a worthy horse of a different color.

"The Eighty-Dollar Champion" by Elizabeth Letts, copyright 2011 by Ballantine Books, is 333 pages and sells for $26.