HARRISON COUNTY, MS (WLOX) - Organizers of the Gulf Coast Winter Classics added an extra week of equestrian events to the schedule this year. That means the sixth and final week of horse jumping events started Wednesday at the Harrison County Fairgrounds.
To entice horse show participants to stick around for week number six, a $25,000 top prize was offered. And a course designer with Olympic credentials was brought into town.
That designer is Steve Stephens. "Every competition that you're building is a little bit an examination for the horse and the rider," Stephens said before the first horses entered the arena. "I would be like a professor giving an exam out here on the jumping field here."
Stephens a professor with a gold medal pedigree. Last summer, Stephens was the lead course designer at the Beijing Olympics. He called that experience "the highlight of my career." And he said it was quite intense, because he had to incorporate Asian themes into the jumping course he designed.
"You're either going to be okay, or you're going to be shot down, and everybody will remember you did a terrible job," he said. "But it didn't come out that way, thank God."
This week, Stephens is in Gulfport. And he's challenging the Gulf Coast Winter Classics' competitors with a series of jumps and turns that are fitting for a grand finale. "I like to be here," the Floridian said, "because I like to see the development of this sport."
Stephens layout of jumping gates on the Winter Classics' grass course highlighted what became a surprisingly solid six week run at the Harrison County Fairgrounds.
Janet McCarroll is the show's coordinator. Despite a weak economy, and attendance dropping at other horse shows, "We've actually had some new growth," she said, "and a lot of people who've come here who never came before."
McCarroll said an estimated 20,000 horse owners, riders, and barn assistants, plus one Olympic course designer made the 10th annual event another classic. "I hope that it says that we've worked really hard to produce just a quality event," she said.
According to event statistics, the Gulf Coast Winter Classics is considered a real shot in the arm for south Mississippi's economy. Organizers say their participants spend 10,000 room nights in local hotels. And they eat 60,000 dinners at area restaurants.
Last year, the Gulf Coast Winter Classics had roughly a $42 million economic impact.