MIDDLEBURY — Several county residents, competing with top players from up and down the East Coast, claimed division titles when the professional horseshoe pitching tour came to Middlebury last week.
Bristol’s Brian Simmons won the top prize of about $1,000 by winning the Division 1 40-foot competition in the Green Mountain Challenge. Debra Brown was champion in the Division 1 30-foot category.
Other local winners included Georgia McCormick, who won the Division 2 30-foot final; Brenda Preston, the Open Division-A Mixed champ; and Bill Tinker, who won the Open Division-B Mixed title.
The Aug. 24-27 tournament attracted 65 pitchers to the Case Street Community Club off Route 116 in Middlebury, home of the Sodbusters Horseshoe Club.
It is the first time in the four-year history of the HP Pro Tour that a professional tournament has been hosted in Vermont, and it was the biggest HP Pro Tour tournament ever, said tournament director Ron Taylor.
“This is a strong tournament,” said Taylor, who traveled to Middlebury from South Carolina to manage the competition. “Almost everyone in this is a multiple-time state champ.”
Indeed, the level of competition at the top of the brackets was intense. Simmons came into the tournament having won six HP Pro Tour titles, three National Horseshoe Pitching Association (NHPA) world titles and 11 state titles. In the D-I 40-foot final he defeated Mike Creek of Columbia, Pa., who himself has won three Pro Tour competitions and two Pennsylvania state championships. Third-place Gale Green of Shaftsbury (a seven-time Vermont state champ and member of the Vermont Hall of Fame) and fourth-place Ray Bedard of Webster, Mass. (a state champion and hall of famer), also boast impressive résumés.
The top competitors in the 30-foot category were of a similar caliber. Brown, the winner, is a 13-time Vermont state champ and four-time New England champ and earned second at the NHPA World Championships earlier in the month. She defeated Dunkirk, N.Y., resident Ellen Perry, a three-time New York state champ, and Barbara Taylor (who came to Vermont with her husband, Ron, from York, S.C.), a 12-time South Carolina state champ and hall of fame member.
To win the titles, Brown, Simmons and the others had to advance through a unique three-tier tournament format. In the first round players toss 30 shoes in each of six matches and advance based only on their ringer percentage, not whether they win or lose individual games. Players advanced out of the second round based on their win-loss record in head-to-head competition.
The third round was traditional match play with a pair of two-person playoffs, and then championship and consolation matches.
Simmons pitched 148 ringers out of 180 shoes in the first round — an incredible 82.2 percentage. He cooled off a bit in the final round when he threw ringers at a rate of a little more than three out of four pitches.
Brown was in third place coming out of the third round, but she turned up her game and pitched ringers at a 76 percent rate in the final.
Bobby White of Erie, Pa., who bowed out in the second round of the Green Mountain Challenge, was in awe of the physical and mental prowess of those in the winners bracket. He said players at this level have incredible powers of concentration — they must, given that they are throwing two-and-a-half-pound horseshoes 40 feet at a narrow stake under the pressures of competition.
“It’s amazing how little room for error there is,” he said. “It’s very detail-oriented.
“The ones who are really exceptional are perfectionists,” he added. “It takes that.”
Watching the winners pace back and forth during warm ups for the final, White explained that a weekend of competition can be taxing on the body.
“Horseshoes is a lot more physical than a lot of people realize,” White said. “You are out there all day, and you’re not standing there. There’s the same amount of walking as there is in golf.”
White is owner of the main sponsor of the HP Pro Tour —White Distributing, which manufactures horseshoes. The Erie, Pa., company is one of about a half dozen horseshoe manufacturers, and White said his company makes the widest range of models.
He said that the shoes he makes can range from the simplest ones that are used in backyard play to precisely manufactured models used by the professionals.
“It’s a lot like a bowling ball. You could pay $50 for one, or you could pay $250 for one,” White explained. “It’s a matter of shape, weight distribution. It’s the design for specific ways of throwing — whether you want it to turn or flip in the air.”
White said horseshoe specifications imposed by the NHPA limit the variety of shoes he can sell.
“I’d like to see them change that so it could be a little more exciting. You could tinker with it a little more … I’d like to make one that was a little heavier; it would turn differently.”
Taylor was impressed with the number of local sponsors for the Green Mountain Challenge, and he said Mike Brown and the other Sodbusters who set up much of the local logistics for the tourney did a fantastic job.
“Mike Brown is the man in this area,” Taylor said. “He has done so much.”
The professionals next will travel to Dallas, Texas, for the Lone Star Shooutout on Sept. 29-30. The national Pro Tour tournament is in York, Pa., in November.
Professional horseshoe pitching is still in its infancy. The top players in tournaments win around $1,000, with Division 2 champs netting about $500 and the open champ $160, Taylor said.
There are no professional horseshoe players who can devote themselves full-time to the sport — yet.
“We’re hoping,” Taylor said with a smile. “That’s part of our goal.
“It’s not the Super Bowl or anything,” he added. “But, one day … maybe.”