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IT TAKES TWO WEEKS to work more than 1,000 horseshoe throwers through the initial rounds of the World Horseshoe Pitching Tournament. Players represent 45 states, Canada, even Norway. The auditorium floor of Hibbing’s Memorial Building has been sliced into 24 fake grass courts, each 40 Feet long with a short iron pole sticking out of a mud pit at each end. On this day, nearly 50 older men are lofting shoes the length of the court, and nailing the post just about every time. That’s a ringer, and that’s what it takes to win.

There’s no goading going on; no one’s trying to distract anyone else, according to Gene Burlingane, a pitcher from Davenport Iowa.

“So you notice everybody stands back while the other guy pitches. It’s a very respectable sport. There ain’t nobody trying to mess anybody up. Very clean, very trustworthy bunch,” he says.

Courtesy is a trademark of horseshoes. The shoes are measured and weighed before every match, but there’s hardly a need. No one would cheat at horseshoes.

It’s fitting that Minnesota is hosting this year’s tournament, at least according to Dick Hansen, from Franksville, Wisconsin. Minnesota’s the state with most members in the National Horseshoe Pitchers Association. Missouri and Wisconsin are strong contenders. Hansen says it might have to do with the Midwest’s rural heritage.

“That’s how I got started in it, because I was born and raised on a farm. Between bailing hay or whatever, we’d go out and pitch a few shoes, you know, on a Sunday afternoon picnics, that kind of stuff,” he says.

Roman legionnaires played a form of horseshoes. George Washington pitched during the Revolutionary War, as did Union and Rebel soldiers during the Civil War. president.

“We went up dramatically in membership the year that George Bush, the first George Bush, was elected to the White House, because he put horseshoe courts at the White House and we got a tremendous amount of publicity out of it,
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” Hansen says.

It’s a real sport that takes real skill, and the championship rounds will draw large crowds of spectators, riveted to a close match.

“When you get at this level,” he says, “the competition and the pressure is tremendous. The tension just keeps building and building and building because you know sooner or later somebody’s going to miss.”

This is a game of strength, stamina and consistency. Don Titcomb, a three time world champion from Northern California, hits ringers eight times out of 10, despite his 77 years.

“It’s tough,” he says. “I’ve thrown 3,000 shoes in a world tournament. At the end of the tournament, I was mentally tired, because you concentrate so much on your motion, your form, your delivery, your game.”

“There’s a turn called a three quarter; there’s one called a one and a quarter. A one and three quarter. A flip. A double flip. One of those will be natural to you,” Titcomb says.

These are shoes you’ll never find on a horse. There are at least 40 brands of competition horseshoes, with names like Mustang, Deadeye and Diamond.

Players in Hibbing run the gamut, from nine to 88 years old the average in their 50s. Minnesota has the most active junior leagues. Still, horseshoes has a lot of trouble competing for kids’ time against more popular sports like soccer and basketball. Few schools field a horseshoe team. That’s too bad, according to Titcomb. It’s an exciting game and good, gentle, exercise.

“They can’t play those sports all their life. They can play this one all their life.”

The finals are underway Thursday and Friday in Hibbing’s Memorial Building. Seating could be tight for the best matches. The top winners will walk away with $3,200, about enough for a good two week trip to the Iron Range.
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