Four high, graceful arcs through the air, four silences of anticipation, four hoped-for clangs of a ringer and a quick calculation of points.
Switch sides, repeat and you’ve got yourself a horseshoe pitch.
But the game isn’t just for barbecues and company picnics, as hundreds of men and women compete in the largely unknown sport throughout Texas, and everyone’s statistics are meticulously monitored, recorded and posted online.
For Rockett residents Larry Lemke and Ron Sanderson, the sport is the perfect way to stay active post-retirement and to make friends from all across Texas. And after they compete in the National Horseshoe Pitching Association’s 2007 World Horseshoe Tournament later this month, they’ll be able to count friends from all over, and outside, the country.
“I’ve played at so many tournaments,” said Sanderson, a retired design consultant and engineer who has garnered the travel award for most tournaments attended for two years running. “You meet a lot of people — it’s kind of like a carnival where everybody knows each other or a family reunion where you like everybody.”
And the two are looking to expand the sport’s small, but dedicated, numbers.
“We’re always looking to get other people involved in the sport,” said Lemke, a retired plant manager for ATCO Products in Ferris.
Lemke and Sanderson, now avid practice and doubles match buddies, originally met through the Arlington Ironbenders, the closest horseshoe pitching club, to discover they lived within a few miles of each other.
Participants of any skill level can play in the tournaments and be competitive, Sanderson said, as each competitor is divided into different classes based on the percentage of their throws that are ringers - a toss that puts both tips of the horseshoe around the stake. The player’s ringer percentages of the classes in larger tournaments can vary by as little as one percentage point, he said.
“You’re grouped with people at your same skill level,” he said.
Even the world championship is open to anyone willing to pay the $125 entry fee, with ringer percentages in the elder’s, men’s, women’s and junior’s competition ranging from the single digits to world champion Alan Francis’ percentage of 89.65. Close to 1,000 entries have been made for the 2007 competition.
According to the Texas Horseshoe Pitchers Association, which tracks and posts ringer percentages from tournaments in the state, Lemke has a 27.28 ringer percentage and Sanderson stands at 35.97.
“You have to practice every day,” Sanderson said.
The two said they decided on this year’s event because of the tournament’s location Ardmore, Okla., the closest it’s been since the two began playing.
“It’ll be a once in a lifetime opportunity. It’ll never be this close again,” Sanderson said.
Horseshoe pitching tournaments are played in a round-robin style, with each contestant pitching a match against every participant in his or her category. While most tournaments pit the classes against each other in one-day, four- to five-hour stints, Sanderson and Lemke will spend three days playing matches against 15 opponents in their respective classes. Each match is 40 pitches for each player, not counting ties that are broken in a kind of “sudden death” rounds. For the world tournament, both men will pitch a minimum of 600 shoes weighing about 2.5 pounds each a distance of 40 feet.
“It’s a challenge,” Lemke said. “It’s very good exercise, especially for someone who’s retired.”
Points are earned by ringers or having the closest shoe to the stake, though players can cancel out their opponent’s ringer points by “covering” it or getting their own ringer. Whether or not the ringer counts for points in that particular match, it is still recorded towards total ringer percentage.
The tiniest miscalculations can make a big impact on the outcome of a match.
“A lot of games are lost by a point or two,” Sanderson said.
The sport is played by men and women of all ages, though the officially sanctioned horseshoe pitching is a little more complicated than the backyard variety.
Horseshoe pitching courts are carefully regulated in size and materials. Sanderson’s court, which he built to regulation, has clay rather than sand pits around its stakes, just like the world championship courts.
Lemke said clay, which they will be pitching on in the world tournament, makes the sport more difficult.
“It’s much tougher,” he said. “It’s like hitting peanut butter, it just sticks.”
Clay allows less room for error, as a shoe hitting a sand pit can sometimes slide or be more easily knocked into a ringer position.
With clay, however, “You can’t slop it on,” Sanderson said.
Official horseshoe pitching also comes with some cost, but not as much as some sports, the enthusiasts said.
“It can get expensive, but you can keep it controlled,” Lemke said.
“It’s not like golf,” Sanderson added.
Horseshoes made to standard cost about $50 or $60 a pair and up, and tournaments entry averages around $10 or $15 at the smaller tournaments. It’s important to own one’s own horseshoes, Sanderson said, as the tournaments don’t loan out pairs, and it’s important to find and practice with a pair that works for you.
Lemke has been pitching competitively since discovering a tournament in Buffalo six years ago, though he first played the game as a pastime in the Air Force.
Sanderson had never tossed a horseshoe until he got involved competitively three years ago.
Both say they don’t plan to quit anytime soon.
“As long as it’s fun and I can do it, I’m gonna keep on playing,” Lemke said.
Horseshoe pitching clubs meet in every state in the United States, and more information is available at www.horseshoepitching.com and www.texasringer.com.
Information on the Arlington Ironbenders is available at http://www.geocities.com/ntxbill/.