Life's a pitch

Game of horseshoes a favorite summer pastime

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— People who think of horseshoes as an excuse to get outside, drink beer and throw around pieces of metal are, well, right. The game can be exactly that to some participants.

But those same people may be surprised to learn about the devout sub-culture of amateur horseshoe players that, as at least one such player says, "live to pitch."

Horseshoes is an international pastime that boasts a governing body -- the National Horseshoe Pitchers Association of America -- that oversees sanctioned tournaments across the country, an elected council, a hall of fame and a bi-monthly news publication.

Colorado is a hotbed for the sport.

Don Conklin, regional director of the Colorado Horseshoe Pitchers Association, said Colorado's three-member team has won the world team championship the past three years.

"There's a lot of us that love it here and practice a lot," Conklin said about Colorado's 333 active CHPA members, who are concentrated mostly on the Front Range. "For me, it's a lifestyle."

Although there's no official league in Routt County -- the closest leagues are in Fort Collins and Grand Junction -- the game is alive and well locally. Horseshoe pits can be found across the county in front yards, backyards and just about anywhere with 40 feet of land and a little bit of dirt.

North Routt resident Billy Jankoski, owner of Rock Bottom Excavating, has one of the finest horseshoe setups in the area. His regulation-size pits are just a few yards from the Elk River on a well-maintained lawn in front of the house he built for his family. The rebar stakes are driven into buried railroad ties instead of concrete to eliminate the "vibrating twang" when struck by horseshoes. The rebar is even set at a slight angle to facilitate "ringers," or tosses that land around a stake.

"I try to get one flip," Jankoski said about his underhand tossing technique. "It's a lot like bowling."

For the past several years, Jankoski has organized a horseshoe tournament at the annual fundraiser for the North Routt Community Charter School. This year's fundraising barbecue and tournament is Saturday at Pearl Lake.

Jankoski said the tournament is a casual event, usually played with two-person teams. There's a fee to enter, and at least half of the proceeds go to the school, Jankoski said.

"We determine the rules before we start," he added.

The basic rules for horseshoe are simple: two horseshoes per team, with one point going to the closest toss to the stake, provided the horseshoe lands within one horseshoe length of the stake. Three points for a ringer, and one point for a "leaner." Games can be played to 11, 15 or 21.

"There used to be some pretty big tournaments around here," Jankoski said, remembering back 15 or so years ago. Jankoski moved to North Routt in 1975. "You'd have about 20 guys who would get 75 or 80 percent ringers."

A high ringer percentage is the way in to a sanctioned horseshoe tournament, Conklin said. He suggested that interested Routt County pitchers get together to develop their own ringer averages. After throwing a hundred shoes and determining the percentage of ringers, a player can compete in a sanctioned event.

The biggest horseshoe event of all is under way in Gillette, Wyo., where the 2006 World Horseshoe Pitching Championships run from July 10 through July 22.

The event marks a title defense for 11-time world champion Alan Francis, whose 90 percent ringer average is as polished as his moustache.

Locally, the biggest horseshoe event is the tournament at the Routt County Fair, coming up next month.

Conklin said interested pitchers can form an official league by contacting him at (303) 499-9091.

Jankoski said he hopes to see a league, or at least some local tournaments, pick up again in Routt County.

"Horseshoes needs to make a comeback," he said.

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