TAMPA — The stakes are high, $60,000 to the winning horse and rider competing tonight in the $200,000 American Invitational at Raymond James Stadium.
There's only one glitch.
The riders can walk the course an hour or so beforehand. But the horses aren't allowed to enter the stadium until showtime. And there's the rub. There's no dress rehearsal for the horses.
Riders can never be sure how their mounts will react to the unfamiliar aura of the stadium.
"The American Invitational is the only venue of its kind in this country," said Leslie Burr Howard, who won team gold in the 1984 Olympics and team silver in the 1996 Olympics. "It's the only stadium setting for show jumping in the U.S."
If the horse is spooked by the stadium, the game is usually lost.
"The horse has to give the most effort," said Steve Stephens, the course designer. "This is not a 50-50 deal. It's more like 60-40 or 30-70.
"The horse going into the stadium for the first time is made of the right stuff or not."
Howard said her preparation for any competition is "knowing my horses, applying the show that's best for them and knowing how to get them through the courses. Each horse is uniquely different."
Her Invitational partner will be Lennox Lewis 2, a German-bred gelding she said might not like the stadium.
"Historically, he's never been a great horse under lights," she said. "The course won't be a problem for him. But it will be if he lets the surroundings get to him."
In his favor, she said, is Lennox likes to be the center of attention.
"He's a very animated, in-your-face horse," she said.
"He always wants to know what's going on."
Howard, 54, puts teaching right up there with her love of competition. In fact, she often finds herself competing against former students such as Christine Tribble, who is in the lineup tonight.
Other students who now are prominent grand prix riders include Kent Farrington, Nicole Shahinian-Simpson, Judy Garofalo Torres, Marley Goodman and Molly Ashe Cawley.
Crowd-pleasers and renowned international riders Margie Engle and Beezie Madden also will be competing tonight. Engle will ride the big gray Swedish-bred mare Campella. Madden will be aboard the German-bred mare Mademoiselle.
Absent will be McLain Ward, Todd Minikus, Lauren Hough and Hillary Dobbs, who usually compete in the Invitational. They're on their way to Switzerland as members of the U.S. team competing next week in the World Cup Final.