Sports & Games
3:27 pm
Thu August 28, 2014

State Horseshoe Championships Come To Kalamazoo

Kalamazoo horseshoe pitcher Keith Rand
Kalamazoo horseshoe pitcher Keith Rand
Credit Chris Killian, WMUK

Think of tossing horseshoes and several things probably come to mind, and all of them likely deal with relaxing. Local horseshoeing enthusiasts refer a few of the attributes of this chilled-out pastime as the “Three B’s” – beer, bar-be-cues and backyards. But this Labor Day weekend, a new brand of horseshoeing is coming to town, one that replaces banter over Budweisers with stone-cold concentration.

Owen Mergen of Kalamazoo
Owen Mergen of Kalamazoo
Credit Chris Killian, WMUK

The Michigan Horseshoe Pitcher’s Association is hosting its 91st annual state championships Friday through Monday at the Kalamazoo Area Horseshoe Club behind VFW Post 1527 off of Kilgore Service Road. Admission is free.

More than 80 participants from across the state, representing a variety of skill levels are expected to compete in the event.

Judy Dennis is the pitcher’s association’s vice president. She says competitors have to have thrown in at least four organized events to quality.

“Depending on what class you’re watching, I mean, if you were watching Class A, you would be amazed at how many ringers were thrown," Dennis says. "If you were to watch a lower class, still, it’s interesting, don’t get me wrong. But to me it’s not as exciting as watching these guys go and say, 'Oooh! He never misses.'”

Dick Frakes, former state champion and president of the club, was hanging out at the courts on a Monday afternoon, playing with a small cohort of pitchers under threatening skies. The tournament, he says, is the real deal.

“There’s a lot more to the game than anybody thinks. Just being in the backyard nobody gives a damn. But this – this is blood," says Frakes. "I mean, they’re coming from all over the state and they’re getting ready to have fun before they have to send the kids off to school again the first of September, ok. So that’s what it’s all about.”

There are 18 lighted courts at the Kalamazoo Horseshoe Club, located next to the main landing path at the Kalamazoo/Battle Creek International Airport. Before the club was founded in 1980, this area held rodeos and other horse events, and was covered with large piles of manure. Frakes and some friends got to work removing the waste, leveled the land and the courts were born.

The humble game, like so many, has its standards and rules. Each match consists of 40 shoes, or throws. Ringers count for three points and shoes within six inches of the post count for one point. Whoever has the most points at the end of the match wins. Pitchers must move counter-clockwise around the pit after they’re done pitching, Frakes says.

Competitive horseshoeing has rules, sure, but what most distinguishes it from the backyard is throwers’ keen appreciation of courtside etiquette, Frakes says. Rule No. 1 – Be Nice.

“The only difference between the backyard and this one is this one is a little more organized and less verbal,” says Frakes.

What Frakes means by that is that strong language isn't acceptable in the championships, this is professional.

High-level horseshoe pitchers can reach ringer rates of almost 90 percent, Frakes says. So what’s the secret of throwing good shoes as the saying goes? Watch your rhythm and most importantly, don’t breathe.

“It’s rhythm and timing. That’s the way you get your ringers," says Frakes. "Without the rhythm and timing, you don’t get anything. And you got to learn how to breathe. When you get ready to throw the horseshoe you got to stop your breathing. Don’t breathe in, don’t breathe out. It’ll change the way the shoe lands in the pit.”