Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Horseshoes not just a summer pastime for championship contenders

Buddy Dyrda lines up a pitch. The 23-year-old Calgary roofer is a top seed at the Canadian horseshoes championships being held in Victoria. Deddeda Stemler photograph for The Globe and Mail.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
August 11, 2010

VICTORIA

A satisfying clang rang out as the horseshoe struck a metal stake, sliding down the post to nestle in the dirt.

Another shoe made a slow rotation through the languid morning air.

It landed with a clang.

A third shoe. Clang.

A fourth. Clang.

The pitcher wore a red sports shirt on the back of which his name was written in marker. Buddy Dyrda, a 23-year-old roofer from Calgary, has returned to the club in which he learned the venerable sport of horseshoe tossing.

He is the No. 4 seed in the Canadian championships, which open today with a parade of athletes following a Royal Canadian Legion honour guard. Some 170 pitchers from seven provinces will compete for bragging rights and modest cash purses. Top prize: about $400. Mostly, though, they will enjoy the camaraderie of others who appreciate the special delight of tossing equine footgear across a grassy expanse.

Mr. Dyrda is a notable contestant for his great youth. Back home, his next oldest competitor is more than twice his age. He is an uppity young man in a game unapologetically dominated by the grey-haired set.

He played team sports in high school, but prefers bowling and, especially, horseshoes.

“In basketball, your teammates let you down one night and you let them down the next,” he said. “This is a one-man sport. It’s all you. That’s how I like it.”

He won three national titles as a junior, scoring ringers on four of every five tosses. As an adult, he has had to move back 10 feet to toss from 40 feet. At first, he scored on only three of five tosses. Now, after four hours of daily practice and tens of thousands of tosses, he is slowly returning to his old average.

He learned the sport from his grandfather, Gordon Butts, at the Victoria Horseshoe Club, which opened in 1935, making it the continuously operated club in the land. His grandmother, Dorothy, was inducted into the British Columbia Horseshoe Association hall of fame last year. Rheumatoid arthritis has limited her pitching, but she remains active as an organizer.

The club runs a program for local high school students to pitch horseshoes as part of their physical education classes. Not surprisingly, the sport does not rank high on the list of grooviness.

What did Buddy’s teenaged buddies think of his avocation?

“They thought it was stupid,” he said, “until I finished second in the world.”

He thinks the sport needs to work on its image and become more attractive to his peers.

“What do I want to do with it? Turn it into a spectator sport. Get more recognition. There’s Game Boys and Xboxes. Hard to gets kids out here. Hard to get them into the fresh air.”

A pastoral hobby more befitting an agrarian 19th-century than a digital 21st has a marketing problem.

“Kind of boring,” he acknowledges. “Like watching paint dry.”

Not that the local club doesn’t try. A fine facility, with a clubhouse and both open-air and covered courts, the club charges just $50 annual membership, while children play for free. It is one of the best secrets in the capital district.

The club entered the Buccaneer Days parade in Esquimalt. To fit into the pirate theme, they slipped under their shirtsleeves the hooks players use to lift their horseshoes.

Back at the club on Tuesday, two old chums — Dale Squires, 61, a retired vending-machine operator from Saskatoon, and Scotty Miller, 67, a semiretired pipefitter from Calgary — whiled away the morning with a long, best-of-three showdown featuring good-natured ribbing.

They debated the merits of the 1 1/4 rotation toss versus the 1 3/4 rotation toss. They teased another player about having placed magnets within his shoes.

Talk turned to the late Elmer Hohl, a six-time world champion and 19-time Canadian champion who is widely thought to have been the greatest the sport has ever known. He is the Babe Ruth and Bobby Orr and Rocky Marciano of a sport dismissed by many as a summer pastime.

Hohl, who belonged to the fourth generation to farm the same plot of land at Wellesley, Ont., west of Kitchener. He only became a competitor at age 38, making up for the delay by winning title after title.

As impressive as was his resume, the admiring pitchers remembered best his trick shots. It was said he could pitch over an automobile to place a ringer on a stake he could not see. Once, he was asked to toss against a brown stubby beer bottle for a commercial. The brewer supplied a stack of two-fours, expecting the shoot to result in shattered glass and sprayed suds. Hohl’s first toss landed in such a fashion as to perfectly frame the label on the bottle. It is said he turned to the director to say, “What else would you like?”

Back on the warmup courts, Dyrda continued his late-morning practice.

Horseshoes spun and clanged against the stake.

“Four for four,” a spectator noted.

“Not quite,” Buddy answered. He kicked at a horseshoe in the dirt in the bottom of the pile. “Now it’s four for four.”

He smiled. If only it was that easy.

The Canadian horseshoe championships are being held at the Victoria horseshoe club, 620 Kenneth St., from Wednesday until Saturday. Admission is free. The clubhouse has light refreshments for sale.