2000-07-19 / Sports

Horseshoes more than just a game for some

By Doug mckenzie

When most people think of pitching horseshoes, they think of backyard barbecues or picnics, where participants enjoy a friendly game as a means of passing the time while enjoying the outdoors.

Part of the attraction is the fact that the game doesn’t require a tremendous amount of athleticism or physical contact, while allowing the players to compete in a game where skill remains an important component.

Although horseshoes are primarily popular at barbecues and picnics, there is an entire population of people who compete in horseshoe pitching at a national level. In fact, horseshoe pitching boasts of being one of the few sports that has a national championship for men, women, boys and girls and can still be played in one’s backyard or at a picnic.

Throughout the state, people of all ages participate in tournaments at both the state and the national level throughout the year. Their devotion to the game has led to the aim of improving their skills while promoting the game.

While their community is relatively small, competitors are looking to change that by creating new associations which would fall under the umbrella of larger associations at both the state and the national levels. Their goal is to gather interest in the sport so that it can officially be recognized.

According to John Forti, 61, of Millstone Township, who is a member of the New Jersey State Horseshoe Pitchers Association, there seems to be a growing interest in the Shore region for horseshoe pitching competitions. The problem is they don’t receive much publicity; therefore, most people don’t even know they exist.

"I’m sure there are people looking for places to play competitively," he said. "And we’re looking to increase the number of places where that can happen."

Many local pitchers travel all over the nation to compete in various tournaments. Buddy Short of Aberdeen Township consistently travels to tournaments in his recreational vehicle with his grandchildren, who are also involved. Short is planning to travel to Bismarck, N.D., next month to participate in the World Horse-shoe Tournament.

And Forti is sure there are other people in the area who would like to become involved in competitive horseshoe pitching as well.

According to Forti, the game of horseshoes is believed to go back to the days of the Roman Empire, when Roman soldiers pitched horseshoes discarded from the horses used to pull chariots. Legend also has it that soldiers pitched horseshoes for recreation in the Boston Commons during the Revolutionary War. However, the first recorded national championship was held in Bronson, Kan., in 1909.

The objective in horseshoes is to throw as many ringers as possible in order to accumulate points. A ringer counts as three points, while a close shoe, which must be within 6 inches of the stake, counts as one point.

Scoring is usually done on a cancellation method, meaning, if both pitchers throw a ringer, they cancel each other out. In addition, only one person can score per inning.

The horseshoe court is made up of two steel stakes placed 40 feet apart that are 14 to 15 inches high. The foul line is 3 feet in front of the stake, and the pit substance is moist clay.

In tournament play, men age 18 and over pitch from 40 feet, while women and juniors under 18 pitch from 30 feet. Men age 70 and over have the option of pitching from 30 feet.

At tournaments, keeping a game score also includes counting the number of shoes pitched and the number of ringers scored. That way, at the end of each tournament game, the player knows the percentage of ringers thrown.

According to the National Horseshoe Pitchers Association, the overall ringer percentage of all the sanctioned pitchers in the United States is 35 percent. However, there is an elite group of approximately 100 pitchers that average over 70 percent, with nine of them averaging over 80 percent.

The NHPA has been the ruling body for horseshoes since 1921 and has established 60 charters throughout the United States and Canada. In the United States there are approximately 15,000 members of the NHPA playing on 5,981 sanctioned courts at 498 sanctioned court locations.

Within New Jersey, there are 200 members of the NHPA, 23 of whom live in Monmouth and Middlesex counties.

The New Jersey State Horseshoe Pitchers Association was founded in 1934. It has grown over the years and this year 29 outdoor tournaments are scheduled.

This year’s tournament schedule has participants traveling from Clifton to Vine-land to compete in 29 events.

The newly renovated courts at Mountainview Park, Route 28, Middlesex, will be the site of the Aug. 26 state championships doubles tournament.

The singles tournament, which will run from Aug. 31 to Sept. 4, will be held at the Flemington Fairgrounds.

The Shore area has been home to a number of horseshoe pitching champions over the years, starting with Lawrence Mahoney of Lincroft. During the course of his career, Mahoney was a nine-time state champion from 1934 through 1940, and in 1947 and 1948.

Bill Kolb of Toms River is perhaps the state’s most recognized horseshoe pitcher after winning the state title a total of 14 times.

Kolb, whose last championship was in 1980, is enshrined in the New Jersey Horseshoe Pitchers Hall of Fame and was awarded a lifetime membership to the NHPA, of which he has been an active member since 1938.

Joe McCrink of Verona is the current state champion and is ranked eighth in the men’s division in North America with a ringer percentage of 77 percent.

However, according to Forti, everyone involved in the tournaments enjoys the camaraderie as much as the competition.

"We have some great throwers and we have some not-so-good throwers, but we all have fun," he said.

However, Forti, who began pitching in tournaments in 1979 and was the only pitcher from Monmouth County through 1987, warned that horseshoe competitions aren’t the place for someone who’s looking to make money by competing.

"You definitely can’t get rich pitching horseshoes," he said.

New Jersey horseshoes don’t have the luxury of sponsors, therefore tournament prize money comes entirely from entry fees. As a result, cash prizes for winning a class may be about $40. The award for the winner of the 1999 New Jersey State Championships was only $300, while the winner of the premier horseshoe tournament in North America (World Horseshoe Tournament) won $3,200.

Forti is looking to organize a Shore area horseshoe club to promote the sport and run local tournaments.

Anyone looking to become involved in the effort can contact Forti at (732) 792-8424 or e-mail him at fortijo@aol.com.

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