Harrison County

Giddy up: Horse show brings competition, revenue to Coast

MARY PEREZ/SUN HERALDA horse and rider jump the rails directly in front of the bleachers at the Gulf Coast Winter Classic Sunday at the Harrison County Fairgrounds. Admission is free and the event continues for three more weeks in South Mississippi.
MARY PEREZ/SUN HERALDA horse and rider jump the rails directly in front of the bleachers at the Gulf Coast Winter Classic Sunday at the Harrison County Fairgrounds. Admission is free and the event continues for three more weeks in South Mississippi.

For six weeks in February and March, Sunday mornings at the Harrison County Fairgrounds are whirl of equestrians competing in seven arenas, warming up in others, cleaning their horses, cleaning their horses' stalls and deliberating with their coaches.

Then every Sunday it stops. The classes end. Hundreds of horses are left eating or napping while almost everyone -- including spectators from all over Mississippi and surrounding states -- flock to the bright turf arena visible from the road.

At 2 p.m., the first of the professionals enters the field and pushes his or her horse into a canter. For the next hour, one by one, the best horses and riders in the country -- and occasionally the world -- navigate a course of 12 jumps, each the size of a sedan turned on its side. To win, they must complete the course without hitting any of the jumps and do so as quickly as possible.

The Gulf Coast Winter Classic, which just completed its 17th year, is a major destination for riders of all skills levels. That a town in South Mississippi has been able to consistently attract the top riders and horses for its Grand Prix -- the top designated level for jumpers -- may be unexpected.

But the show has been so successful that its organizers say the event is bursting at the seams, and they're trying to figure out how to expand further.

"I think this year went great. We had record-breaking attendance numbers for both competitors and spectators," said part-owner Janet McCarroll. "We literally ran out of places to put them, that's how many we had."

Before this year's show even ended, McCarroll already had an eye on 2016. And expanding the show, experts say, could only benefit the Coast."From an economist's perspective, this is a perfect event to generate revenue," said Gregory Bradley, an assistant clinical professor in the University of Southern Mississippi's College of Business. "Largely because of the length."

No formal economic impact study has done for the show, but show organizers estimated the event generates $40 million in revenue for the Coast each year. In 2014, the show was responsible for about 14,400 hotel room stays being sold, McCarroll said.

"The horse show is set up to have a tremendous economic impact," Bradley said. "The reason I said that is because it's six weeks long and it draws a considerable amount of participants from outside our local economic region."

The show brings in thousands of participants, along with spectators, who buy food at grocery stores, eat at restaurants and sleep in local hotels. They buy gas at local gas stations, wood shavings from a nearby shop and pay a local farrier or veterinarian if their horses need care.

They might also shop at local stores or gamble in casinos.

In a sport as affluent as horse showing, it's safe to say that many -- though not all -- of the visitors have disposable income well above Mississippi's average.

And they are on the Coast for six weeks.

Expanding the show could only raise revenue for local business and that money, in turn, will be funneled deeper into the local economy.

And -- a minor but important point -- because the event itself is in a rural part of the county, it doesn't create traffic snarls or interfere with regular activity on the Coast.

For restaurants like The Shed, the show brings foot traffic to their location in Gulfport and for the first year it had a stand at the show itself, said Beth Burdeshaw, the general manager there.

Over the 17 years, she's started to recognize show regulars.

"We just hope they continue having this venue on their route," Burdeshaw said. "We enjoy having them, meeting new people, seeing it every year."

Renee Areng, the head of the Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the revenue dollars are great for the area. But even more than that, the show creates a signature event -- in normally slow winter months -- that officials can use to attract visitors.

"I think it's one of the most unique events I've ever seen," Areng said. "I'm proud they call the Coast home."That uniqueness extends to the entire sport. The connection required between horse and human is what most riders, or at least the dozen and a half interviewed over six weeks, find attractive.

"I don't know any other sport where you are dependent on another living creature that has a mind, a brain, of its own," said Amanda Forte, one of the professional riders competing. "Dealing with that partnership is just an incredible feeling when it goes well. It's that passion of having a team, trusting an animal. And you know, it's thrilling as well. It's just an incredible feeling to be on top of that horse."

That sentiment was echoed across ages and skill levels.

"Having the connection with your horse, it's not like any other sport. It's unique," said Rebecca Patterson, a talented 15-year-old that rides with Forte's barn. "It's a connection without words. It's really cool."

The Gulf Coast Winter Classic, like many other shows sanctioned by the United States Equestrian Federation, consists of two related but distinct varieties of horseback riding.

One half consists of show hunters, and is scored subjectively based on how the horse completes a course of jumps. Judges look for horses that go smoothly and elegantly and appearance matters.

The other half, including the Grand Prix, consists of show jumpers. A horse must navigate a course of jumps within the allowed time without knocking down any jumps. If multiple riders manage to do so, then a jump-off pits the riders against a clock and the fastest rider to finish with the fewest knocked jumps wins.

There are six Grand Prix events -- one each Sunday of the show -- each with different sponsors and different amounts of money. As the purses grow so do the size of the jumps and the complexity of the course.

To someone unfamiliar with the sport it might all look the same, but the differences are evident in the jumps themselves, with hunter fences designed with a natural look and jumpers courses filled with brightly colored obstacles. Spectators might see a hunter horse make a smooth loopy turn into a straight line for a jump while a jumper might try for a hairpin turn to shave seconds and hit the jump at an angle.

A more experienced eye may detect differences in how the horses approach the jumps and where they take off.

Each event is divided into dozens of classes based on the age and skill of the rider, age and skill of the horse and size of the jumps.

An average week at the Winter Classic features about 225 classes, with Saturdays being the busiest days.

But every day is bustling with more than 1,000 horses needing to be ridden, groomed and turned out. Their stalls need to be cleaned and their manes braided. Tack needs to be conditioned and boots shined.

And competitors need time to make it to the evening social events organized by the show, with live music and local food.

The show is so big and busy that many riders, trainers and grooms rely on bikes, dirt bikes and golf carts to get around. Seeing children neatly dressed in tan breaches and a navy jacket, hair neatly in pigtails, riding around on a bright pink or blue bike is common.McCarroll started the Winter Classic 17 years ago with 500 horses in attendance.

The show grew steadily, hit a plateau, then saw a big bump in 2014 -- the first year it offered more than $1 million in prize money.

This year, the biggest week had 1,200 horses at the fairgrounds at one time. The smallest week was 700. The total number of horses that passed through the fairgrounds was not immediately available but McCarroll said about 55 percent of horses and riders stay the entire six weeks while the rest tend to stay two or three weeks at a time.

The size of the event is crucial for riders to earn points toward awards.

"The area is a good accent piece, but you need points to attract riders," McCarroll said.

Also, crucial? Some good, old-fashioned Southern hospitality.

"We can't compete in money, but we can compete with hospitality," she said.

Whatever the reason, McCarroll aims to keep that growth going but it might take some finagling.

It remains to be seen whether the fairgrounds can accommodate more growth. This was the first year that the Winter Classic rented several large blue tents to increase the number of stalls it could offer. Small round pens, available for rent, were everywhere.

"If there's space, we've used it," McCarroll said. "We're about to grow out of this. We're slam packed in here."

McCarroll said she was working with Harrison County on a plan to facilitate further growth.

The Gulf Coast Winter Classic pays $25,000 a week to use the fairgrounds and supervisors are well aware of the wider economic impact.

Some officials plan to visit a show in nearby Pensacola to see their plans, and they are working on putting together their own plan so the show can grow in an orderly, rather than piece-meal way.

"We need a full-scale, long-term plan so we can add as we have money," said Board of Supervisors president Connie Rockco. "It's fabulous for economic development and they've had a great partnership with the county."

As for McCarroll, she's already starting to plan for next year's show while the last of the trailers pull out and head home, or to the next show.