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Published: Monday, 8/2/2004

Horseshoes' popularity runs deep

BY JANET ROMAKER
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Don Conners of Delta winds for a pitch during the Founders Memorial Tournament held recently in Fulton County. A pretty good grouping in the Founders Memorial Tournament in Wauseon. Don Conners of Delta winds for a pitch during the Founders Memorial Tournament held recently in Fulton County. A pretty good grouping in the Founders Memorial Tournament in Wauseon.
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This summer across Ohio, a hotbed state for horseshoes, metal clangs against metal at county fairgrounds where hundreds of players - young and old, veterans and beginners - toss around a long-standing tradition.

In Toledo, Dale Dombrowsky plays local pitchman. With a ringing endorsement for the sport, he's been pumping up the numbers, pulling in participants.

President of the Toledo Area Horseshoe Club, Mr. Dombrowsky is starting to see a turnaround in the popularity of pitching. Some younger people are getting hooked, and some older people are returning to the sport.

"We've been trying to recruit people. It's a really good sport. I fell in love with it years ago," said Mr. Dombrowsky, who won his first tournament in 1973. He's organizing the Toledo Open Tournament Aug. 14-15 in Jermain Park.

The tournament, he said, will feature Alan Francis of Defiance, the current world champion. When it comes to horseshoe pitching, Mr. Francis "is like what Tiger Woods is to golf," said Mr. Dombrowsky.

Mr. Francis and his wife, Amy, are among 1,200 competitors from the United States, Canada, and Norway who are at the National Horseshoe Pitchers Association's 80th annual World Horseshoe Pitching Championships in Pocatello, Idaho. The event started July 26 and ends Aug. 7.

Participants are competing for $127,000 in prize money. The youngest entrant is 6-year-old Travis Sluys of Santa Rosa, Calif.; the oldest is Oliver Lee, 86, of Minot, N.D.

Norman Ameling, 85, of the Toledo Area Horseshoe Club takes aim in Toledo's Jermain Park. Mr. Ameling of Oregon had 26 ringers out of 50 throws. Norman Ameling, 85, of the Toledo Area Horseshoe Club takes aim in Toledo's Jermain Park. Mr. Ameling of Oregon had 26 ringers out of 50 throws.
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If Mr. Francis wins this week, it would mark his 10th world title, tying the record for number of world championships. He has competed in 24 consecutive world tournaments.

Mr. and Mrs. Francis compete in about a dozen tournaments from April to Labor Day each year.

"We call it our hobby/second job. We make a little bit of income from it," he said.

Mr. Francis, 34, whose father and grandfather competed at the tournament level, is from Missouri; Mrs. Francis, whose father also was a competitor, grew up in Defiance. In 2003, Mrs. Francis was inducted into the Ohio Horseshoe Pitchers Association Hall of Fame.

When the world championships came to Ohio a few years ago, the event drew 1,800 participants, said Casey Sluys, of Santa Rosa, Calif., second vice president of the NHPA.

"Ohio is a hotbed of horseshoes," he said, but he doesn't know why exactly. "It could be a lot of promotional efforts," he said, noting that Ohio, Michigan, Missouri, and Iowa are "really, really big in horseshoes."

Some clubs in Ohio and Michigan have built indoor facilities so members can pitch year-round, he said.

Fulton County doesn't have an indoor facility yet, which explains the Polar Bear Tournament in October. "It's usually cold," said Roger Moden, of Delta, secretary-treasurer of the Fulton County Horseshoe Club. The club-sponsored Polar Bear event will be held at the Fulton County Fairgrounds, where members gather weekly, weather permitting, to practice and compete.

Tournaments will be featured during the upcoming Fulton County Fair. "You could pitch every weekend if you wanted to," Mr. Moden said. Dozens of tournaments are held in Ohio from May to October.

Toledo club members pitch at Jermain Park in the summer; in the winter, they head to indoor courts at Collins Park. The club has 23 members.

Mr. Dombrowsky, who has won about 75 trophies for his pitching skills, said players are known for their competitive spirit, but they are nice people. Polite, well behaved.

"I've always been sports-minded. I played football, basketball, softball. I can't run fast anymore," he said. "For me, horseshoes is perfect. It's good, clean fun. It's more popular than people think."

To increase the club's membership, he will conduct special recruiting efforts next summer. This summer, he was able to get tournament sponsors, bringing in prize money and sparking interest. Last year 13 signed up for the tournament; so far this year, there are 26 entries.

It was recently estimated that 15 million enthusiasts pitch horseshoes in the United States and Canada, in tournaments and leagues, at recreation areas and in backyards.

Contact Janet Romaker at: jromaker@theblade.com or 419-724-6006.



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