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Kentucky is big on sports, especially when it comes to University of Kentucky Wildcat basketball and University of Louisville Cardinal football. Most everybody hits the golf course after work, takes a day off to cheer the thorough-breds to the finish line, or plays a weekend game of tennis. Thousands of kids swing at fast pitches and kick soccer balls.

But what about those sports with fewer, yet equally rabid, players? You might be surprised at some of the uncommon sports going on right here in Kentucky and the high caliber of participants.

World’s Largest Rodeo
Take rodeo…Kentucky Invitational High School Rodeo in particular, which is held each year at the Kentucky Horse Park. Though not a varsity sport, each year rodeo lures nearly 50 teens across the state to compete for scholarships, silver buckles, and cash. These hard-working kids maintain good grades, conduct, and rodeo skills for a chance to qualify for the world’s largest rodeo each July—the National High School Finals.

“It takes a lot of dedication and the ‘want to’ to do it,” says Magan Perkins, the state association’s 2004 rodeo queen, a competition based primarily on skill, grades, and poise. The Greenville senior practices her events daily, sometimes in the morning before school.

Another 16-year-old, Dillion Thweatt, lives on his family’s W+ Cattle Company Ranch in Marion. His mom was in high school rodeo; his grandfather, a team roper, helped organize the Kentucky High School Rodeo Association; and his uncle competes in professional rodeo.

“What I do is a family thing,” he says. “I’ve been doing it all my life. I practice all week and rodeo on weekends. I love it. Calf roping is pure adrenalin!”

KYSHRA’s all-around cowgirl for 2005 Allie Hafley, 17, followed in the boot steps of two rodeoing older brothers. Having ridden for years, the Perryville senior competes in barrel racing, pole bending, goat tying, breakaway, and team roping.

Corbin’s Aaron Lowe, on the other hand, just started calf roping and team roping two years ago at 14, and steer wrestling at 15. This year, he’s the second all-around cowboy in the state.

Not only does high school rodeo keep participants busy and promote good sportsmanship, but also can bring families closer together. “You drive six or seven hours in the truck,” Aaron’s dad David says, “and you’ve got to talk.”

Magan agrees. “If it wasn’t for my dad hauling me every weekend and my mom pushing me 24/7,” she says, “I wouldn’t be where I am today. And I like that.”

Bullseye with Archery
Another state program touching the lives of students—more than 50,000 middle schoolers yearly—came about through a partnership between the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) and the Kentucky Department of Education. Implemented in 21 pilot schools in 2002, the National Archery in the Schools program is a two-week-long physical education curriculum.

“We picked an outdoor skill that would teach students to have a greater appreciation of wild places and wild things,” says Roy Grimes, assistant to the commissioner of KDFWR and national director of National Archery in the Schools.

The idea caught on so fast that now 330 schools participate and more than 100 are wait-listed. Exceeding national phys-ed standards, the unit meets KERA (Kentucky Education Reform Act) requirements and serves special-ed students.

Kentucky High School Principal of the Year for 2004 Tommy Floyd, of Somerset, says the archery program is the best thing he’s seen for kids in 20 years. He’s seen it transform his Top 20 school, forging relationships between people who otherwise would have never known each other.

“Teachers are reporting that behavior and attendance are better on archery days,” Grimes explains. “So many kids need an example of success in their life. When they can send arrows down the range safely and hit those targets, they feel good about themselves. That helps them and their schools.”

Croquet on Clay
Totally extracurricular, backyard croquet has entertained generations as a summer pastime. The competitive clay version of the sport hit the national spotlight in the 1980s when the late Archie Burchfield, a Scott County tobacco farmer, drove in a friend’s “22 ton of lettuce” truck down to the Palm Beach Polo Club in “Levi’s and a seven dollar Sears shirt” and beat the national champion on grass.

“He’d played Kentucky croquet all his life and this was grass,” his wife Betty reminisces about her late husband, who won 16 state clay and two national grass titles. “But honey, croquet is croquet!”

It may be, but players swear by their favorite court surface.

Officially begun in 1936, nine-wicket Kentucky or “clay croquet”—represented by the Croquet Association of Kentucky, the oldest such in the country—uses hard, fast clay courts (there are at least five in the state), often with short mallets.

Russell Springs resident Joe Hainey, 58, “got serious about the game” in ’93 after a heart attack. To date, he’s won 14 state titles. “I’ve got a court in my back yard,” the tanned, fit champ laughs, “and so many trophies my wife says if I bring home many more, we’ll have to move.”

On the other hand, the United States Croquet Association (USCA) sanctions six-wicket “grass croquet” played with long-handled mallets on putting green-cropped courts. All in the state are privately owned, one at the home of Chuck and Betty Whitlow in Mayfield. With Georgetown’s Rick Wilhoite (a crackerjack player with a 0 handicap), Chuck has won the USCA Midwest Regionals doubles, while Betty and partner Ted Moss of Nicholasville have captured the Midwest Championships and placed second nationally.

It’s not your backyard game. Think 3-1/2-inch balls through 3-7/8-inch wickets.

“There’s a lot of strategy,” Betty says. “It’s a mental game, a lot like billiards or chess on grass. It doesn’t take much physical strength, so women can compete with men. Unlike golf, you can play a game in an hour or two. And it’s not real strenuous. People play into their 80s.”

Rolley-Hole Marbles
Speaking of childhood games played by grownups, in Tompkinsville men shoot Rolley-Hole marbles all year in an all-season facility.

“There’s been marble playing in Monroe County ever since I went to grade school,” says Rondal Biggerstaff, who’s 70. “Nearly every community had a marble yard in it. We had to quit during the winter, so we built the Marble Dome. We start every day at 4 p.m. and play seven days a week. Marbles is good exercise. All that getting up and down keeps you limbered up.”

Although there are many variations to Rolley-Hole marbles, basically there are two teams with two members each. Each person gets one marble to “shoot” (hit the opponent’s marble), “roll” (try to get his marble in a hole), or “lay” (stay in the same place). Team members travel up and down a 40′ x 25′ dirt yard rolling marbles in or within a hand’s length of the hole, while also trying to keep their opponents from getting in the hole. Each player must make 12 holes, in a specific order, and the first team who does that wins.

This year’s state Rolley-Hole tournament is October 1 in Frankfort. And every August, the nationals take place across the state line at Standing Stone State Park in Hilham, Tennessee. And for the past five years, the Monroe County “boys” have cleaned up.

Women’s World Horseshoe Champ
But the girls have cleaned up, too. Sue Snyder of Madisonville had been pitching horseshoes as family fun for several years, with husband Rick and their two children, but all that changed in 1987. That’s when Sue participated in her first World Horseshoe Tournament. Since then, she’s gotten the pitching fever and now stands as the five-time World Horseshoe Champion in the Women’s Championship Class, the top class for women.

“My first world title was in 1992 in Syracuse, New York. Ohhh! That is the one I remember the most. I’ve been competing ever since and I truly don’t know when I’ll ever stop,” says the 58-year-old.

Sue competed at the 2005 National Horseshoe Pitchers Association’s World Horseshoe Tournament last month in Bakersfield, California.

“There were 24 women in the top class—eight women are automatically seeded based on highest percentages of wins throughout the year, and then another 16 are chosen from across the nation,” says Sue. “It’s a huge event that moves from city to city each year, with about 1,500-2,000 people of all ages competing.”

Coming in as the reigning champion, Sue was seeded as the No. 7 woman this year. During the two-week event, she pitched four nights in a row, for an average of about five games per night.

How does she get ready for such high-stakes competition? “First, to qualify you have to pitch in four sanctioned tournaments during the year. And I pitch 500 shoes a day for about a month before the tournament.”

Then Sue quickly adds, “But I don’t want to scare people away from horseshoes. Not everyone pitches that much. There’s a class for all types of pitchers, for novices who pitch 10% ringers out of 100—basically any age range and skill level can compete.”

Sue’s famous enough that she even has a horseshoe designed after her and named in her honor. “It’s called the Snyder E-Z Flip and White’s Distributor in Erie, Pennsylvania, helped me design the shoe about three years ago. Other horseshoes were too thick where I put my thumb, and I wanted to take the weight and put in into the tips, so it would flip better. Now the company forges my horseshoe and distributes it for others to purchase.”

But you don’t have to compete on a national or world level. “Kentucky has a horseshoe tournament every week somewhere across the state,” says Sue. “And there are leagues everywhere, where you play weekly, just like a bowling league.”

Even though she loves the game of horseshoes, Sue admits that after such strenuous training, “I hang up after the World Tournament and I don’t pick them up again (for competition purposes) until April. I work really hard for that one tournament.”

Sue is an advocate for horseshoes and in her off time welcomes the opportunity to work with individuals of all ages who want to start pitching. She recently worked with a church group and taught them how to pitch horseshoes.

Her best advice for anyone who wants to take up horseshoe pitching or get back in the game: “Practice and enjoy it. It’s such a fun game, it’s the best exercise, and it keeps you fit.”


Find out more about Kentucky’s atypical sports champs, rules, and competitions:

Archery in the Schools
(800) 858-1549×324, Roy Grimes

Clay Croquet
(859) 494-8080, Frank Harris, Croquet Association of Kentucky,
or e-mail at

Grass Croquet
(859) 885-5853, Ted Moss, United States Croquet Association

Horseshoe Pitching
• National Horseshoe Pitchers Association of America,

• Kentucky Horseshoe Pitchers Association,;
(859) 567-8511, Monty Roberts RD, Warsaw

• Sue Snyder, five-time women’s horseshoe champion,
(270) 821-6356

Kentucky High School Rodeo Association
(270) 965-5856, Dusty Shelley, KYHSRA
or e-mail at
(270) 395-4889, Suzette Story, Rodeo Scholarships Inc.
or e-mail at

Rolley-Hole Marbles
(270) 487-1314, Meda Burnett, Monroe County Economic Development Center


Got a knack for golf, bowling, billiards, or any of a number of other sports, but thought you were too old to compete?

In 2001, Grace Amburgey brought a gold medal in horseshoes back to Clearfield from the National Senior Games in Baton Rouge at the age of 80. Five-time winner of the state horseshoes title, her daughter Betty Crawford, then 53, claimed a bronze in shuffleboard the same year and came in 7th against her 80-year-old mother in horseshoes at the National Senior Games.

The Olympic-style Senior Games include a slew of sports. Events are separated into age groups, and anyone 50 and over can enter the local and state contests. You must qualify for the nationals.

“The Senior Games are all about having a good time,” says state chairman Obadiah Okeson.

And in the case of horseshoes, Amburgey says, “having a good pitching arm.”

Local Level Senior Games
Contact your local recreation department or call (270) 358-4321, Eddie Bowen

Kentucky State Senior Games
(270) 358-4321, Eddie Bowen
(859) 288-2928, Kristy Stambaugh, Lexington Parks & Recreation
or e-mail at
September 2005 and 2006 in Lexington

National Senior Games • 2007 in Louisville

For more information on unusual sports, including table top tennis, rodeo, and horsepulling, click here: unusual sports

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