It was quite an exhibition of exultation and athletic ability and the Keeneland fans roared their approval. But I`ve heard tut-tutting from the traditionalists that Chipperfield was out of line with such showiness, that, somehow, such a display cheapened his victory and the sport of steeplechasing.
To coin an English phrase, that`s absolute bollocks. Frankie Dettori, one of Europe`s best flat jockeys, often celebrates a major win by leaping from his stirrups to land on his feet besides his horse, and it`s one of the reasons he has legions of fans. The pumped fist, the high five, the funky dance in the end zone`those moments allow the watchers of the sport to participate in the heady glee of achievement. Those moments humanize the athlete and bond the fan to the sport.
So I say, if we can`t use a Clayton Chipperfield moment to positively promote our sport, to show the giddy excitement of collecting a huge purse, to celebrate a wonderful horse`s athletic ability, then we aren`t trying very hard.
Joe Clancy, the National Steeplechase Association`s media director, recognized that Chipperfield`s backflip was a golden moment of promotional opportunity. Tipped off that the jockey had performed his aerial stunt after he won New Zealand`s biggest race, the Great Northern, Clancy made sure that ESPN`s cameramen kept their cameras on Chipperfield. So at least those who watched ESPN`s Wire-To-Wire program, which aired the Tuesday after the race, got to see the victorious backflip. But the moment went no further. Clancy did what he could as he tried to make his 7 p.m. flight out of Lexington after the 5 p.m. race, frantically calling every media outlet he thought would be interested, but without a more substantial plan of action, he could do no more.
The NSA doesn`t yet have the promotional machinery in place to hustle footage to TV networks like Fox SportsNet so it can make that evening`s broadcast. Nor are they able to get Chipperfield, a good-looking 23-year-old with that lovely New Zealand accent and a story to tell, on the morning news shows.
The conventional wisdom of 2004 says that public relations, promotion and advertising are the essential tools to raise the public`s awareness of anything, from a new chocolate milk to a new presidential candidate. Officials in the NSA have recognized their need for promotion, but as Clancy said, there`s no shortage of great ideas, it`s the execution of those ideas that has stalled. In the meantime, moments like the Chipperfield backflip are slipping between the cracks.
Promotion of the sport is a new concept to NSA officials, a necessary evil. Bold strides need to be taken to get the ball rolling. To start with, let`s earmark funds for an NSA promotional booth, which travels to each hunt meet and racetrack to establish the same kind of cohesive branding that NASCAR has achieved with its 30-some races all around the country. NASCAR has a well-oiled promotional machine that rolls the drivers, their cars, their sponsors and the races into a comprehensive package. Following their lead, steeplechasing could market the jockeys as extreme athletes, the horses as the most courageous equines, and give the fans sports heroes to follow through the year. OK, let`s get rolling.