Horseshoe aces pursue world title in aging sport

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Entire families compete at once. Announcers ask competitors to volunteer for scorekeeping duty so the next round can begin.

Welcome to the most relaxed championship on the planet — the world horseshoe pitching tournament.

Players, even those at the top of the sport, insist they enjoy the camaraderie and picnic atmosphere of the game as much as the competition. Even so, it's tough to interest kids in a game with a frontier flavor in an age of the Wii and Game Boy.

The average age of the 1,330 competitors is 53, say organizers of the tournament, which ends Saturday.

"I see a lot less young people playing," said Alan Francis, a 14-time world champion. "To me, it's a scary trend."

It's not easy to promote a game if children aren't exposed to it at picnics and family cookouts — and players say that doesn't happen today nearly as much as it did two or three generations ago.

"There's really not a lot of young people who are joining right now," said Crystal Sheehan, who at 20 is one of the few young players in the tournament's adult divisions. "I think a lot of the younger ones think it's for older people and they're not really interested. But I think it's good fun. I love doing it."

These are people who can take a two-pound horseshoe with an opening just 3½ inches across, throw it at a stake 40 feet away and get a ringer seven or eight times out of 10.

They can discuss clockwise vs. counterclockwise spins, whether a particular shoe is better designed for a flipping or turning style of pitch and how squishy the clay in the pit should be so that a shoe will "grab the mud" when it lands.

The key? Focus only on the stake and the delivery.

"You've got to try to make yourself like a machine — do the same thing every time," said Arthur Tyson, a 69-year old player from New York.

The game may have started thousands of years ago with soldiers tossing rings at stakes in the ground, which evolved into the English game known as quoits. The National Horseshoe Pitchers Association of America says the game really took off when soldiers came home from the Civil War.

The first "world championship" was held in Kansas in 1909. In 1914, the Grand League of the American Horseshoe Pitchers Association formed and standardized the rules. The game has changed a bit since then — the stakes are taller now and set two feet farther apart, for instance — but it's basically the same.

Men pitch from 40 feet, women and players over 69 from 30 feet. Two players face off, taking turns pitching two shoes. Each ringer counts 3 points, and any shoe within six inches of the stake is one point. But ringers cancel out ringers and near misses cancel near misses, so good players can go for long stretches without anyone scoring.

In the tournament's championship rounds, games are played to 40 points. The winner, after the top 20 competitors have all played one another, is the pitcher with the best win-loss record.

"It's a tough game. A very tough game," said Francis, who's going for his 15th title and a prize of $4,000.

The association has inquired about getting the sport into the Olympics without success, incoming president Stu Sipma said. That could be because horseshoes isn't really an international sport. The world tournament occasionally attracts a player from Japan or Norway, Sipma said, but most of the competitors are from the United States and Canada.

This year's championship field is the largest since 1,542 pitchers showed up in 1999. But Sipma said the total number obscures the fact that the adult divisions are shrinking as more pitchers move to the elder divisions.

"What scares me," he said, "is those elders are going to go away."