A grassy area along the north fence at the Seneca County Fairgrounds saw a flurry of activity Saturday for the horseshoe pitching tournament. Seven participants signed up for the singles competition. Dick Blackburn of Fostoria and Chuck Holman of Sycamore coordinate the horseshoe pitching at the Seneca County Fair.
The senior citizens' contest Tuesday drew 10 players. The singles pitching Saturday morning had seven competitors. In the Seneca County tournament, the A class is for players who average 30 percent ringers or more. The B class is for those with 20-28 percent ringers. The C and D classes are for less-accomplished pitchers. Holman said a 10-percent differential usually separates the classes. The small turn-out allowed Blackburn to run all classes in one contest.
"This tournament's been running about 25 years, and the fair is supplying the trophies. We really appreciate that." Blackburn said. "We've got players here from Fremont, Bloomville, Sycamore, Findlay, Tiffin, Fostoria - all the surrounding areas."
PHOTO BY PAT GAIETTO
Taffy McKnight concentrates before pitching her horse shoe Saturday at the Seneca County Fair.
The area for each pitching court measures 10 feet wide and 50 feet long. The playing area is supposed to be level with a north-south orientation. Blackburn said vehicles that drive over the courts during flea markets leave large ruts that must be smoothed out. Rain during a contest usually stops the action because the players tend to slip on wet grass.
The courts have a pit at each end with a metal stake in the center of the pit. The distance between the stakes is 40 feet. Players pitch from concrete slabs on either side of each pit. The pits are filled with a special clay that is kept damp so the horseshoes will not skid when they land.
"Wherever they hit, they'll pretty much stay," Holman said. "We've got (the pits) just about to where they're mud but not quite."
Holman said he had been a Class A player in the past, but he lost a leg and now has trouble with balance. He still enjoys watching and helping with the tournament.
"If you're 70 years old or handicapped, you can stand at the white flag, which is 30 feet. If you're not 70 years old, you've got to pitch off the concrete which is 40 feet," Holman said.
Ladies also are allowed to pitch from the flags. Everyone must be 16 or older to compete. Most people bring their own horseshoes, but Blackburn also has extra sets of shoes available for first-time players.
As the contest began, Blackburn explained the scoring. Ringers counted as three points each and close shoes, 1 point each. "Leaners" would not be allowed. He usually sets the games at 40 points for A and B classes and 30 points for C and D. Blackburn paired up the players for round one with Steve Lowe serving as a "pacer" who plays without scoring to give the odd person a partner.
"He's pitched at four or five of the world tournaments," Blackburn said.
Having started pitching about 25 years ago, Blackburn spent about 20 years taking part in national competitions all over the U.S. He spent five winters playing in Florida. At Stone Mountain, Ga., he was one of 1,000 players. He remembered a two-week tournament with 2,700 players.
When he could only pitch four out of seven games due to back problems, he gave up competing. He he was ranked among the top 3 percent of players in the world when he gave up the sport six years ago. Blackburn's experience qualifies him to be a judge for tournaments. Some county fairs have stopped offering horseshoe pitching because they can't find qualified people to run the tournaments. The job requires someone who knows the sport and who has contacts with other competitors.
"I've got 60 people that called me and said 'Hey, write me down,'" Blackburn said.
The camaraderie also keeps him active in the sport, but Blackburn said he must put friendships aside and be objective while officiating at a tournament. Participants also are expected to respect other players and behave sensibly. There is no celebrating on the courts and no bad language or distracting behavior.
Although some fairgrounds have removed their horseshoe pits for parking or other purposes, Blackburn is pleased to have support from the local fair board. He said the tournaments bring many people to the fair who might not come otherwise.
Sycamore and Fremont are the only two places in the area that conduct outdoor league play. Taffy McKnight age 18, has been playing in Fremont nearly every Monday night for about two years. The recent graduate of Fremont Ross High School is a baton twirler, but she also does well at pitching.
"He got me into it," McKnight said, pointing to her dad.
During the winter, horseshoe enthusiasts can use indoor pits in Lima, Kenton and Columbus. Blackburn said he was looking forward to the afternoon competition with pitchers from Toledo and a gentleman from Liberty Center, Myron Schwartzwader, age 76. Schwartzwader is the oldest person to compete in the fair tournament. Holman was pleased to see a few teens getting involved.
"This is one of the sports that's dying out. Younger people don't want to get involved, I guess. We used to have a lot of young people down in Sycamore that pitched, but they'd rather stay on the computer, I guess." Holman said.