HARRISON COUNTY -- Champion horses were the draw for the Gulf Coast Winter Classic $35,000 Grand Prix on Sunday, but there were plenty of other reasons people from across South Mississippi were at the Harrison County Fairgrounds.
"This is our first time," said Dawn Necaise of Pass Christian, who came with her husband, Rusty, and their three granddaughters, Taylor, Trista and Kenzie.
They own horses, and she said, "We've been saying for a couple of years we were going to come and haven't." They brought chairs and lined them up along the fence where they could see and hear the horses clear the rails. Others watched from bleachers positioned around the edges of the course.
Competitors mix with the local crowd at 2 p.m. each Sunday, said Janet McCarroll, Gulf Coast coordinator of the six-week event.
"It's a good mix," she said. "We have huge crowds." Admission is free to spectators, and for the past three years crowds have grown to the point where all the parking spaces are filled, she said.
It's also a colorful event. Flowers decorate the edges of jumps, or in the case of the Beau Rivage Resort & Casino's jump, playing cards and blazing 7s add color. A train takes adults and kids for a ride, and there are miniature ponies to pet, a bounce house and crawfish, ice cream and other treats.
Competitors come from across the country and internationally. Some spectators know about horses and others come just to admire the skill and enjoy the day.
"These are world-class horses," said Gerry Verner of Ocean Springs, who was there Sunday with his wife, Heidi, and other family members. You'd have to go to Florida or Colorado to see horses of this caliber, he said.
Many people in this area identify with rodeos. In this competition, "There is no saddle horn," he said. "This is close contact saddles and a different kind of horsemanship."
Three more events are scheduled March 6, 13 and the finale on March 20.
"We plan on probably coming next weekend now that we know what to expect," said Lois Cochran of Gulfport, who brought her grandson Deszel Waltman for the first time Sunday.
"I love everything about it," said Jeff Hegstrom of Gulfport. He and his wife, Angie, invited another couple to the event.
Carl Lawrence of Pascagoula brought two cameras with telephoto lenses to capture the graceful jump of Classified, the defending champion in the Grand Prix, and the other horses.
"I just heard this was the event to see and decided that I'd come see," he said.
"We have stalls here," said Miriam Carter, owner of Bienvenue Acres in Gulfport. Her students range in age from 4 to 60 and take part in portions of the Winter Classic.
"It's the greatest free show, certainly, on the Gulf Coast," she said. The horses are jumping 5-6 feet and in some places three jumps in a row. "That's pretty darn impressive," she said.
So is the impact to South Mississippi. The fairgrounds have 1,000 stalls. "Every stall that's three people who come with the horse," Carter said. "It's got a huge impact on the economy here."