It’s horseshoe heaven as Hamburg hosts national tourney - The Buffalo News

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It’s horseshoe heaven as Hamburg hosts national tourney

It’s about throwing something – 30 or 40 feet.

And watching it fall.

And then marking where it landed, and doing it all over again.

“Horseshoes,” said Dalton Rakestraw, a 17-year-old from Illinois, “is very meticulous. It’s very tedious. We’re sticklers on the rules.”

When most people hear “horseshoes,” they probably think of backyard barbecues and picnics where the choice was that or croquet. But not to some folks.

For more than 1,200 pitchers, as they are called, horseshoes was enough reason to leave home, travel hundreds of miles in their cars and campers, and spend two weeks playing matches in a Hamburg arena.

Yes, two weeks.

Why would they want to do that?

“It’s horseshoes – ain’t nothing else better to do,” A.D. Webb said with a thick Southern drawl. “We go all over the world to pitch horseshoes.”

Webb was in town from his home in Brownsville, Ky., with his two sons.

“We even went to Utah,” said his son James, 9, referencing last year’s world tournament in St. George.

Webb’s other son, 17-year-old Ben, is ranked third in the world in the Junior Division. They’re hoping he takes the title this year.

This is the world championship tournament of the National Horseshoe Pitchers Association. And it is playing out at the Hamburg Fairgrounds until Saturday.

Here you will find wives and children in the bleachers, watching their loved ones throw metal U-shapes weighing a couple of pounds at stakes – 40 times in a row.

You will also find judges, peering at pits of moist clay to see if a shoe is a ringer or not.

You will hear a ceaseless metallic “clink,” along with occasional cheers.

And you will watch as players – many of them senior citizens – do their best to beat one another.

Even though, to those who play horseshoes, the atmosphere is more like family.

“My husband and I compete,” said Cindy Rose, of Columbus, Ohio. “We met each other on a horseshoes court.”

She put the appeal this way: “You make friends.”

But, to some who love the slow-paced sport, one of the main challenges facing horseshoe pitching these days is demographics.

1,265 competitors

How do you divert the attention of young people in a high-tech world – and get them to toss a few shoes around?

“There’s more activities for young people today,” said Tina Hawkins, a vice president in the national organization.

As for their parents, she said, they can be “involved in their children’s sports, instead of horseshoe pitching.”

Inside the fairgrounds’ Event Center, 48 portable horseshoe courts, each with two pits, were set up beginning last week for the world’s best and most dedicated pitchers – 1,265 in all – to take aim.

The throwers compete all day in shifts, with 96 people per shift, and each division competes over three days.

The less advanced players – called the “lower-ringer percentage players,” who “ring” an average of 10 to 15 percent of the horseshoes they pitch – compete Monday through Wednesday. The competition gets more advanced as the tournament goes on, with ranking based on ringer percentage. The Top 20 players advance to the championships based on ringer percentage. All games are recorded on an electronic scoring system.

For the most advanced players, numbers are significantly higher.

Everyone at the tournament, for instance, knows Alan Francis of Ohio. He’s like the LeBron James of this game, and holds a 90.84 percent average.

And if Francis is LeBron, then Brian Simmons is Kevin Durant. Simmons, of Vermont, who has won three world championships, has an 85.73 percent average.

You should see the battles these two rivals have, both eager to be crowned the best. But for now, Francis, the 18-time champ, is the MVP.

These are, of course, the stars of the National Horseshoe Pitchers Association.

“A lot of times it comes down to Alan and Brian,” said Paulette Hansen, who helped organize the tournament. “Those two will battle. They will battle for that title.”

The championships will take place on the final three days – this Thursday through Saturday.

Horseshoes have been known around the world – and in the United States – for a long time.

“Horseshoes go way back,” said Bob Dunn, a historian of the sport, who is attending the championships.

And though ancient Romans were known to pitch shoes, Dunn made the case for horseshoe pitching to be considered an American sport.

“It has to do with the decades it’s existed,” Dunn said of the sport’s continued appeal in this country.

It’s also a sport for all ages, even if many of the competitors appear to be senior citizens. Last year, the youngest competitor was 5 and the oldest was 94.

The national pitchers group was founded in 1921, said Dunn, who is the author of a book, “AAU National Amateur Horseshoe-Pitching Championships 1937-1977.”

He said that sometimes people don’t realize that horseshoes is an organized sport.

“It’s not the tavern league,” he said. “We’ve progressed from where people think of horseshoes as old men in overalls.”

And perhaps that’s one reason why Hamburg made such an effort to land the 2014 World Horseshoe Pitching Championships, first winning a bidding war in 2012 to host the event and then planning for it over the last two years. Village Mayor Thomas J. Moses even pitched the ceremonial “opening shoe” last Monday.

The mayor said Hamburg wanted the tournament because it would increase activity in the community and bring money to the area.

It’s about fun, friendship

The tournament always stimulates the economy of the area in which it takes place, said Stu Sipma, president of the National Horseshoe Pitchers Association.

Though 20 to 33 percent of attendees camp out in trailers, the remainder book hotel rooms, and all do shopping in local stores, Sipma said. All told, the event is expected to have a $2 million economic impact on the Buffalo Niagara region.

And to the competitors, it’s not just a sport. There also is money at stake. The participants registered this year are competing for cash and prizes worth more than $160,000.

On a recent afternoon, the international competition was in full swing.

Players wore their last name and home state on the back of their shirts, like jerseys. Signs on the Event Center’s lavatories read, “No horseshoes in restrooms.”

Competitors included Rose, who pitched so well in her round of matches that she beat her typical scores and was glowing.

Dalton, the 17-year-old from Illinois, watched a Senior Men’s Division competition from the stands while munching a plate of french fries.

He has been a champion at the tournament, in his Junior Division, for the last two years. Dalton is hoping to keep his streak alive in Hamburg.

That’s the thing about horseshoes: It can look easy. But that doesn’t mean it is.

Dalton used to go out in the yard at his family’s rural home and throw 500 shoes a night to prepare for tournaments.

Now, he does a bit less than that. But he still practices a lot.

“Winning your first one, there’s a lot of pressure,” the teenage champion said.

“But when you try for a repeat, and it’s back to back, it’s even harder. My pressure level is maxed out.”

Rose said that what some people don’t realize about pitching horseshoes is that it is a cerebral game, as much as a physical one.

“It’s a lot up here,” she said, tapping her forehead. “It’s a very mental game.”

But, again, what do you get out of all of that effort?

“It’s a lot of fun,” Rose said, smiling.

For others, it’s about friendship.

Hansen, one of the tournament organizers who came here from her home in Wisconsin, said she knows someone in all 50 states through horseshoes.

“It’s just the camaraderie. You have personal family and then you have your horseshoe family,” Hansen said. “It’s a unique, wide variety of people. You have lawyers and doctors and then you have bartenders and waitresses, and everyone has a story.”

And then there was Larry Munn, a 72-year-old retiree from Roswell, Ga., who grew up outside Buffalo and was returning to the sport after decades.

Munn learned to pitch horseshoes in a backyard court that his father put in. He entered and won his first tournament at 12 – 60 years ago – and had lots of other wins as a young man.

“When I was growing up in Alden, there wasn’t a lot to do,” Munn said.

But as time went on and he had a family and a career, he fell away from horseshoe pitching.

“Didn’t really have time,” Munn said.

He said that what he gets out of horseshoe pitching is simple.

“It’s exercising. It’s relaxing – mentally, it’s relaxing,” Munn said.

During one of his matches in the Hamburg arena last week, Munn paced back and forth, in faded blue jeans and a gray shirt, absorbed in the game.

‘He just blocks it all out’

These days, Munn is throwing shoes with a ringer percentage in the 40s.

On his first day in the competition, Munn won all five of his matches.

“You can’t have any distractions,” said Munn’s wife, Carol, who was watching from the viewing stands in the arena, clad in a white T-shirt bearing the message “You Can’t Keep a Good Munn Down.”

Next to her sat their daughter, Kimberly O’Neill.

“He just blocks it all out,” Carol Munn said.

Carol Munn brought on their road trip from Atlanta a special token to wear at the tournament – a silver necklace pendant, in the shape of an upside-down horseshoe.

On his first day in the competition, Munn won all five of his matches.

“I just felt competitive, I guess,” he said after the first match.

The spirit of horseshoe pitching isn’t leaving Hamburg until this weekend, and it’s free to enter and watch the drama unfold.

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