To see Francis pitch horseshoes is akin to watching a human metronome. Deliberate and methodical, the rangy, 6-foot-tall, 155-pound right-hander is a picture of balance and economy of motion, efficiently tossing shoes that hit the stake — stationed 40 feet away in a bed of thick clay — with a satisfying clank, like a magnet to steel. Over. And over. And over.
The purchasing manager for a commercial printing business, this horseshoe whisperer developed and honed his pitching stroke through years of practice while growing up in Blythedale, a small town in northern Missouri. He learned the game from his father, Larry, who also pitched competitively.
“I remember watching my dad pitch at tournaments, and I remember my granddad, who passed away when I was 8 or 9 years old, pitching horseshoes too,” Francis recalls. “I saw Dad’s trophies and thought, ‘Wow, he’s pretty good.’ I could tell it was important to Dad, so it became important to me. He used to get a horseshoe magazine every month, and we’d look at players’ ringer percentages and talk about how good these guys were. The better I got, the more excited I got about it.” He won 10 Missouri state championships and even met his wife, Amy, a three-time world championship runner-up, at a horseshoe tournament. “I dreamed about being a world champion, just like Elmer Hohl and Curt Day, the guys I idolized.”
There are many ways to pitch a shoe, and there’s no right or wrong way; everyone has his or her own unique style. But Francis prefers a three-quarter reverse, in which the shoe turns counterclockwise and rotates not quite one full turn before hitting home.
Francis pitches a low, line-drive shoe that’s never more than 6 feet or so above the ground. There’s little unnecessary movement in his delivery; like so many things in life, fewer moving parts equals less chance for error.
Francis has his own signature line of horseshoes that he uses in competition. Made by White Distributors, the cast metal shoes are available in blue or red and weigh 2 pounds, 8 ounces — just two ounces below the legal limit.
During his personal tournament season from May 1 to Sept. 1, Francis generally practices three to five days a week and not for more than half an hour. During the offseason, he rarely picks up a pair of shoes.
“I don’t practice just to say I’ve practiced,” he explains. “I put myself in tournament mode. If I draw it out to 45 minutes, my mind tends to wander and I get sloppy and make mistakes.”