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Chester County Press

Horseshoes is serious business for Oxford teen

07/28/2015 10:58AM ● By J. Chambless

Kelly Hatrick and his daughter, Emily, with her trophy from the junior world championships of horseshoe pitching.

By John Chambless
Staff Writer

The clang of metal on metal has been a constant in the lives of Kelly Hatrick and his daughter, Emily. The game of horseshoes – a backyard favorite for generations of picnickers – is pretty serious business for the Hatrick family, and Emily has capped her young career by winning third place in her division at the junior world championships, held in Kansas this month.

Emily, 17, who will be a senior at Oxford Area High School this fall, is following the family tradition because she loves to compete, and it's in her blood.

“My dad and his brother pitched,” Kelly said on Monday afternoon during an interview at the Penn Township Park horseshoe pits. “My dad passed it on to my older brother and me, but I was the only one who really stuck with it. I started when I was about 14.”

 Kelly taught the game to Emily and her older brother, but Emily has continued playing – all the way to the world championships. “I was 7 when I started,” Emily said. “I didn't practice the way I should have. But I'm practicing now. This is my tenth year pitching.”

Outfitted with matching team shirts and custom-made wooden carrying cases for their horseshoes, father and daughter explained that horseshoes is not just a pastime.

Serious competitors use soft clay pits so that the horseshoes land and stick, Kelly said. The game is often played in dirt or sand, “but we don't normally pitch on sand because we don't like it,” he said. There's too much chance for the horseshoe to bounce or slide.

While horseshoes is a game that anybody can play – from early childhood through old age – the size of the pits varies. Up to age 12, children pitch from 20 feet. At 13, they move up to 30 feet. “Women pitch from 30 feet forever,” Kelly said, “but they can pitch from farther back. Emily pitches from about 35 feet.” The regulation pits are 40 feet for men, “until you're 70, when you move up to 30 feet again,” Kelly said. “That keeps you in the game.”

The horseshoes used in tournament play have to be a regulation size, but players can decorate them any way they want, and throw however they want. Some players flip the horseshoe, some gracefully land it flat around the post – all that matters is the “ping” indicating a ringer, or getting as close to the post as possible.

There's no big investment in equipment, although Kelly does have his player name, “Big Daddy Smooth,” stitched onto his shirt. His horseshoe carrying case is also decorated. Emily's horseshoes are painted a girly pink and white, but when she's playing, she's a tough competitor.

“I need to warm up a bit,” she said, taking two practice pitches before solidly landing a horseshoe on the post and making it look effortless.

At last year's Pennsylvania state tournament, Emily came in second at the juniors level. At the world championships in Kansas this year, she pitched five games the first day and four games the second day against young players from as far away as Norway, Canada and Japan. On the third day of competition, she took third place in the world. “The games are friendly, but competitive,” she said, smiling. “You get serious.”

In total, there were 1,404 competitors at the whole competition. To get to the worlds, players have to pitch in four sanctioned tournaments. Traveling to compete is a regular activity for Kelly and Emily, who pay about $15 per person to take part in a tournament. There's not a fortune to be made in horseshoes, either, Kelly said. The world championship winner gets only $4,200. At that top level, out of 100 pitches a player makes, 85 or 90 are ringers, Kelly said.

 For taking third place in her age division, Emily got a medallion, trophy and a $300 certificate that she can cash in when she's 18.

There's an etiquette to playing horseshoes, and while top-level competition can be intense, courtesy is always paramount. “First of all, you shake hands at the beginning and end of games,” Kelly said. “You don't jump around when somebody else is pitching. It's like in golf – you just step back and let them play.”

The game of horseshoes has been around since horseshoes were commonly found at the blacksmith's shop, so it's largely a game for older people. “It's aging out,” Kelly said. “It's hard to recruit young kids, because they want to play video games.”

There's an informal Oxford horseshoes league that plays mostly at people's houses, Kelly said. But at the skill level of the Hatricks, finding a suitable place to play usually means traveling to sanctioned tournaments.

The National Horseshoe Pitchers Association is a hub for serious players, and charges only $25 per year for membership. As players move up in the ranks, their “ringer percentage” is matched with players of similar skill in tournaments until they eventually reach the world championship level.

Emily's friends know she plays at a championship level, but it's not a game for most people she knows. While her father keeps her engaged in the competitions, “I encourage myself” when it comes to keeping her skills up, Emily said. “It's something I really enjoy.”

On Aug. 2, the Hatricks will be competing in New Castle, Del., and on Aug. 22, they'll be in New Cumberland, Pa., for another tournament. The state competition is on the calendar for Labor Day weekend in Carnegie, Pa., and the Hatricks will be there, too.

While she hasn't made any decisions about college yet, Emily will continue playing horseshoes, she said. Is it something she can envision herself playing for a lifetime? “Oh yeah,” she said with a grin.

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To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email [email protected].