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WINTER EQUESTRIAN FESTIVAL

WHAT: The Tampa tour of the annual $3-million Winter Equestrian Festival, featuring an international contingent of grand prix show-jumping riders competing at high speeds over high jumps with their powerful equine partners. Competitions include children and adult hunter, judging the style and beauty of the horses, and equitation classes, judging the technique of the riders. Visitors can watch training and warmup exercises before the show and shop at outdoor vendors offering horse-related items, from T-shirts to fine jewelry. Food and drinks are available at several locations on the grounds.

WHEN: The festival opens Thursday at the Bob Thomas Equestrian Center on the Florida State Fairgrounds in Tampa and continues through Sunday. It re-opens March 19 and continues through March 23. The final week runs from March 25-29. Festival hours are 8 a.m.-5 p.m. The highlight of the festival is the $200,000 Budweiser American Invitational, one of the most prestigious grand prix events in the country, at 7 p.m. on March 29 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. The competition features the top 25 riders of the Winter Equestrian Festival, the top four in the American Grandprix Association rider of the year standings and the defending Invitational champion.

WHERE: All events except the Invitational are at the fairgrounds. From Pinellas County, take Interstate 275 to Interstate 4. Take exit 5 to Orient Road. Follow signs to parking and the equestrian center.

ADMISSION/TICKETS: Adult admission is $5 on weekdays, $10 Saturdays and Sundays. Children 12 and younger are admitted free. Students and seniors 65 and older are $5. Advance tickets to the Invitational are $20, $30 and $60 for a family four-pack. The day of the event, tickets are $25, $35 and $70 for the four-pack. For advance tickets, call Ticketmaster at (813) 287-8844, (727) 898-2100 or Stadium Jumping, Inc., at (813) 253-2782. Advance tickets also can be ordered on the Internet at ticketmaster.com or at stadiumjumping.com.

EVENTS: Riders of all ages on ponies and horses in hunter, jumper, equitation and grand prix show-jumping competitions. The grand prix show jumping features top riders and horses from the United States, Canada, South America, Saudi Arabia and Europe.

Grand prix competitions include a $25,000 Challenge Cup at 1 p.m. on March 20, the $60,000 Grand Prix of Tampa at 2 p.m. on March 23, and the $30,000 Ariat Challenge Cup at 1 p.m. on March 26. The Grand Prix of Tampa and the Ariat Challenge Cup are qualifying events for the World Cup April 16-20 in Las Vegas. The Grand Prix of Tampa also is the final qualifier for the Invitational. The three events are part of the grand prix field.

COMPETITORS TO WATCH FOR: Florida native Margie Goldstein-Engle of Wellington will be back in Tampa to compete among the nationally and internationally ranked grand prix riders. She was a member of United States Olympic team at the 2000 Games in Sydney and is a seven-time winner of the AGA rider of the year title. Other riders include Engle's teammates in Sydney: Lauren Hough of Wellington, Laura Kraut of Oconomowoc, Wis., and Nona Garson of Lebanon, N.J. Also scheduled to compete are 1984 Olympic gold medalist Joe Fargis of Southampton, N.Y., 1978 Invitational winner Norman Dello Joio of Wellington and McLain Ward of Brewster, N.Y., who teamed with Engle, Hough and Beezie Madden of Cazenovia, N.Y., on the U.S. team that defended its Nations Cup championship Friday in Wellington.

_ Compiled by Christina K. Cosdon.

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