The shows average about 1,000 hunter and jumper horses and 3,500 people per week during the six-week run in February and March. Competitors dine out nightly during the period; they buy fuel and supplies; they shop at local stores. And show coordinators estimate a minimum 12,000 hotel room nights reserved in the period.
All together, the show’s economic impact totals $42 million for the region, says Janet McCarroll, event coordinator of the Gulf Coast Winter Classic Horse Shows.
“This event brings people from all parts of the United States, Canada and Mexico to live here for the winter and leaves a substantial economic impact to an area that really needs it,” she says.
The Gulf Coast Winter Classic is an AA-rated hunter and jumper horse show sanctioned by the United States Equestrian Federation. The Gulfport event includes six weekly, five-day competitions for hunters and jumpers, or horses that jump fences with stylistically different qualifications, tasks and challenges. Today, Mississippi is home to the youngest of six winter circuits in the United States. The circuit allows competitors to vie for $800,000 in prize money, earn national points and enjoy the mild winter of the Gulf Coast.
Meanwhile, the 15-year-old show brings undefinable exposure to the state, which joins the ranks of Florida, Arizona and California for quality, winter shows. In 2011 and 2012, the Gulf Coast Winter Classic earned the Member’s Choice Award in the Southeast, surpassing two larger,more-established circuits for the honor.
“Throughout the country in horse disciplines, when they talk about horse circuits, they include Mississippi,” McCarroll says. “Now, we’re a standard in our industry.”
The event takes place at the Harrison County Fairgrounds & Equestrian Center in Gulfport, probably the best-kept secret in Harrison County, McCarroll says. The site includes seven all-weather, crushed rock competition areas and a rare 400-by-400-foot grass field. Such fields prove challenging and expensive to maintain, so there aren’t many in the United States, McCarroll says.
The grass field in Gulfport has been commended for its beauty and quality. In fact, it earned praise from a field designer in the Beijing Olympics.
“He believes it’s one of the best Grand Prix fields in North America,” McCarroll says.
McCarroll founded the Mississippi circuit. When she started searching for a venue, she found Gulfport. Today, the show maximizes the fairgrounds’ space and hopes to grow with any opportunities for the facility’s expansion.
“I’m thankful that we’ve found such a wonderful place and for how welcoming and open the Gulf Coast community is to the event,” McCarroll says. “It’s a nice team effort and an event that seems to be doing good things. We’re real proud of it.”