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Knock, knock

College Park to stage a hurdle race unlike any other

Posted: September 5, 2017 1:56 p.m.
Updated: September 5, 2017 1:53 p.m.
Tom Didato/C-I/

KNOCKERBALL STEEPLECHASE WILL MAKE its debut at the 2018 Carolina Cup in College Park when participants get the chance to jump over hurdles while donning the inflatable and protective air-filled balls.

While it may not be the most exciting 100-yard stretch of racing at next spring’s Carolina Cup Steeplechase Races, the Knockerball Steeplechase promises to be the wildest non-sanctioned race of the afternoon.

What is Knockerball, you ask? It is a single chamber inflatable sphere which, ordinarily, is used to perfect rolls, flips and wheels. You can also ram into another person housed inside a Knockerball to knock that person harmlessly to the ground all while seemingly defying gravity.

The balls, which have inner handles and adjustable shoulder straps, have been used in Knocker soccer, at minor league baseball games and at parties where guest can bounce around and flip themselves upside down.

Never, though, has the ball been used to jump a set of hurdles at a steeplechase race meeting. That will all change in College Park as part of the March 31, 2018 Carolina Cup.

Knockerball Steeplechase had its test run on the front stretch of the Springdale Race Course earlier this summer with participants ranging from young adults to “mature” kids giving the balls a go while making their way over a set of modified hurdles. Among those taking part in the fun exercise was John Cushman, the Interim Executive Director of the Carolina Cup Racing Association.

A four-time champion jump jockey who rode Quiet Bay to victory in the 1982 Carolina Cup, Cushman climbed inside a Knockerball as the test pilot for the new venture. The experience was unlike any other the Camden native said he had ever experienced on his home race course during his riding career.

“I’m 62 years old and I was out there for an hour (in a Knockerball),” Cushman said with a smile. “I flipped upside down and everything. I felt very safe. It is a lot safer than what I used to do out there.”

Demonstration day included Knockerballs being brought to Camden by Knockerball Island Bruisers out of Hilton Head Island which will supply the spheres come race day.

For those wanting to see what Knockerball Steeplechase is all about, the Carolina Cup has a short video demonstration on its Facebook page. Four days after the 20-second video was put on the race’s Website, the hits were coming at a fast and furious pace.

“As of (Thursday) morning,” said Carolina Cup director of ticketing and vendor and trophy coordinator Maggie Davis, “we’ve had 18,322 people reached via our Facebook post and 7,000 views from start to finish of the video, 126 likes and over 100 shares with multiple comments tagging other people.

“We wanted to keep the video short to keep people interested,” Davis added. “We’re very happy with the response that we have received even though it has only been up for four days. We think it is going to spark a lot of interest in the race.”

In addition, Davis and fellow office worker Elizabeth Reames sent an e-mail blast which targeted College Park e-mail boxes. From the 591 which were sent, nearly 400 of those who received the e-mail had already read it and many have responded to the Carolina Cup office requesting more information on the races.

Davis said the timing of the release of the video and the e-mail was not by coincidence. With college classes just starting throughout the region, the time was right to hit up prospective and past College Park patrons.

“Honestly,” Davis said with a laugh, “we tried to send it while they were in class so they could open it and read it.”

The idea of having a Knockerball Steeplechase races in College Park came to Cushman after seeing a demonstration of the oversized spheres online. It did not take the man who devised the plan to place College Park on the backstretch at Springdale to formulate an idea as to how to incorporate Knockerball into the Camden spring classic.

“I saw it somewhere online and said, ‘This would be the craziest thing that we’ve ever done in College Park,’” he said. “From people my age to people Maggie’s (Davis) age, people have had the same reaction and have said, ‘Now this is going to be funny.’”

The test run, which took place in July, included a straight-ahead course measuring some 200 yards in length with five jumps to be cleared. After his run and having younger participants get inside the Knockerballs to traverse the course, Cushman shortened the track to 100 yards. After several passes, the men and women learned how to clear the hurdles either by throwing themselves over or, stepping on the padded jumps and landing on two feet.

More instructional videos as to how to make one’s way over the jumps will be released on the Carolina Cup Facebook page in the coming weeks. “There’s definitely a technique to doing it and we’re going to make sure there is enough video so that people see how to do it correctly,” Cushman said as to the safety aspect of the event.

The Knockerball Steeplechase is just another of the activities designed to entertain those college-aged students coming to College Park. After a hiatus of nearly two decades, live music will return to the area with the Cushman working with Columbia-based entertainment venue, The Music Farm, to secure a band which will take the stage at or near 10:30 a.m. and finish their set at 1 p.m. on race day.

“We were talking to the guy from the Music Farm, which will provide the band for us, and he said to get some other activity in College Park so that the focus isn’t just on drinking but other fun things that these kids will want to do,” Cushman said of bringing Knockerball Steeplechase to the portion of the track which will also have water stations set up for that day’s residents. “You can’t get 15,000 kids out there without  having live music.”

While nothing is set in stone, Cushman and Davis said each person/organization which purchases any of the 90 tents located inside College Park will be able to designate one representative to compete in the Knockerball Steeplechase. Cushman envisions between nine and 10 heats being run starting at 1 p.m. while taking time off when the horses hit the track for one of the afternoon’s races. “I can envision a horse running down the backside and seeing these eight balls running around …,” Cushman said.

The winners from each heat --- which are expected to be shown on the track’s Jumbotron, so patrons in other areas around the course may view the races --- will then race for the coveted Knockerball Challenge Trophy. The finale may even get a true racing feel as Cushman hopes race announcer Tony Bentley will make his way from his perch atop the grandstand to call an race like no other which he has ever called before in his long career at the track.

“Hopefully,” Cushman said, “we’re going to get Tony Bentley over to call the final race which will add some fun to it.”

(For ticket and other information regarding the March 31, 2018 running of the 84th Carolina Cup, featuring the 48th running  of the $150,000 (Gr. 1) Marion duPont Scott Colonial Cup, please call 432-6513 or, log onto www.carolina-cup.org.)

 

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