Contrary to rumors, the Washington International Horse Show, which opens tonight at 7:30, is not on its last legs. However, it may be the last time this prestigious equestrian event will be staged at Capital Centre. l

David Lamb, treasurer of the show, said, "Yes, we have lost money for the past two years. But if I have anything to do with it, barring a catastrophe, the show will not die." Although Lamb would not divulge the exact figure, sources have estimated that the show is close to $80,000 in debt. e

Lamb, a Washington attorney who said he expects to be elected president of the show next year, began his mission to salvage the 22-year-old show by paring expenses, specifically by inviting only three foreign teams to compete, one fewer than in previous years.

"This is a big business now and we have to cut down our expenses and add revenue," Lamb said. "The Capital Centre is the most appropriate place but it is also the most expensive. The place is also too big; if I could get 10,000 people in there I'd be apoplectic.

"Since we have to share the travel expenses for the foreign horses and riders with New York and Toronto (the three shows make up the fall indoor circuit) it just got to be too expensive," Lamb said. "Last year our share of the freight was $85,000. So, for the first time I told the New York show we wouldn't go for it, that we would only have three teams. That way we wouldn't lose our international rating."

Lamb's plans were not without flaws. Three weeks ago, Mexico backed out of the show. Lamb, who has been involved with the show for 15 years, quickly arranged an early flight over for the French team that had planned to attend the New York show.

So Gilles Bertran de Balanda, Frederic-Cottier, Christophe Cuyer and Marcel Rozier will represent France. Ian Miller, Marc Laskin, Alan Brand and Judy Thompson will ride for Canada. Last year's President's Cup winner, Leslie Burr, has been named to the United States team along with Melanie Smith, Norman Dello Joio and Peter Leone.

Lamb also worked on increasing the show's income. Each evening's international jumping events, which will also include top professional riders such as Rodney Jenkins, has a corporate sponsor. Capital Centre officials report that tickets sales are up $6,000 -- but the price per ticket is also up. (Tickets are priced from $3 to $15.) And, while prize money has been increased to more than $100,000), exhibitors are irate that entry fees have also risen. In some divisions the price to compete will cost riders more than in New York.

The second phase of Lamb's salvage project was to attempt to project a new image. "We are trying to design a horse show that appeals to everyone. It is no longer an annual affair for the social set, he said. Star billing in the something-for-the-whole-family category this year goes to the Black Stallion -- star of the movie of the same name who will make an appearance each evening. The world famous Budweiser Clydesdale bitch will also perform.

In addition, the show will have a brief commentary during each event. "Each class has a different element and once the public is educated on the difference between a green hunter and what the judges are looking for in the carriage competition we think they will want to come back. In Europe show is one of the largest spectator sports," Lamb said.