TAMPA — An international lineup of Olympians, past Invitational champions and some of this country's most celebrated riders will compete with their elite horses in tonight's $200,000 American Invitational under the lights at Raymond James Stadium.
It's the 40th anniversary of the prestigious show-jumping event named in honor of its late founder, Gene Mische. The Invitational, limited to 30 riders, is this country's only stadium setting for a major championship.
Riders can expect Olympic course designer Steve Stephens to create a course of Olympic difficulty — big, wide and colorful jumps arranged to test horse and rider individually and as a team.
Last year's champion, Kent Farrington, 31, of Greenwich, Conn., is returning to defend. He will attempt to be the third rider to win the event back to back. Michelle McEvoy Grubb took the title in 1974 and 1975 and Molly Ashe-Cawley won in 2001 and 2002.
Other past Invitational winners competing include Katie Prudent, who won the Invitational in 1983, 1985 and 1988 and Olympian Leslie Howard, who took the title in 1984.
Two-time Olympian Beezie Madden, who won Sunday's $50,000 Grand Prix of Tampa, will compete. Madden won the Invitational in 2005 and 2007. Florida native and Olympian Margie Engle, who took second place in Sunday's grand prix, aims for a first Invitational win.
Rookie Reed Kessler, a 17-year-old high school senior and student of Prudent, will be the youngest rider. After the recent selection trials, she is No. 1 on the United States Equestrian Federation's long list for the London Olympics.
Engle is in the No. 2 spot and Farrington is ninth. But the placements could change as those hoping to be on the U.S. team are required to compete in two more competitions; upcoming events are in California, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Canada.
Madden, Laura Kraut and McLain Ward (now recovering from an injured knee), who were on the 2008 Beijing Olympic gold medal winning team, have been given byes. Kraut plans to compete tonight.
Two other young riders among the list of veterans are 18-year-old Katie Dinan and Nicholas Dello Joio, 23, whose father Norman won the Invitational in 1978 and 2004.
Among the international riders are Venezuelan Olympian Pablo Barrios, Paulo Santana of Brazil, Angela Covert-Lawrence of Canada, Tina Fletcher of Great Britain, Darragh Kerins, Kevin Babington and Darragh Kenny of Ireland and Maria Hecart of France.