Kentucky has its Derby, Virginia has its Gold Cup. And while some of the people at the latter would rather have been at the former, they didn't let that dampen their enthusiasm too much on Saturday.

Take John Warner, for example.

A two-time Gold Cup winner who's been coming to the race for about 30 years, he presented the trophy to the winner, John R. Neal's Prince Saran. But he had planned to be in Kentucky.

"I had a lot of work Friday in the Senate, so I couldn't make it to the Derby," he explained.

And was it a letdown?

"Oh no," he said. "My ties are to Fauquier County. Being here is never a disappointment."

Nor was it for the rest of the 32,000 who flocked to the 60th running of the Virginia Gold Cup, being held for the first time at the spanking-new Great Meadow Course in The Plains.

For the local horsey set, the first Saturday in May has meant the Gold Cup ever since 1922 (with a brief interruption for World War II). And people have had all that time to develop any number of traditions.

Take the tailgate party. You don't need a tailgate to have one. The trunk of the Bentley will do nicely.

It did for Patricia and Richard Barrow of Chevy Chase, who parked theirs right in front, where they could keep an eye on their weekend house across the field. The Barrows invited a few friends over to sip champagne, nibble cheese and lean against the gleaming white conveyance (he says it's a '57, she says '58). Said one of their guests, Gordon Vaughan, an Englishman down from New York for the event, "This is civilization."

And it was.

In recent years, the allure of the race has extended to those who have little desire to own a horse, but quite a few of Saturday's spectators were among the cogniscenti. Take John Heckler, ex-husband of Health and Human Services Secretary Margaret Heckler, who had reserved a small roped-off area overlooking the course for his own non-tailgate party. Heckler brought along his daughters Belinda and Alison, USA Today editor Sheryl Bills and photos of himself and Bills riding. The duo won the Fairfax Hunt Pair Races two weeks ago.

Back on the front line was former ambassador True Davis, who offered cocktails, sandwiches and brownies from the trunk of his Rolls. He was a model of a fashion trend in his yellow necktie patterned with racing silks. "Everyone has a few horse ties. Which one you wear depends on how you feel," said Davis, who came prepared for the Kentucky Derby as well, with his portable TV.

Davis brought his friend Denise McGrath for the day, along with her mother, Gerda McGrath. "This really is popular. I was just amazed at all the people here," said the younger McGrath, who lives in Potomac. "Maybe it's because of 'The Preppie Handbook,' " she said, surveying the sea of madras. McGrath, whose pink-and-white ensemble included bright pink lipstick to match the large flower on her hat, managed to avoid the collegiate look.

So did a lot of other people. The invitations said "Proper Dress Is Expected," and there were all sorts of ways to fulfill the requirement.

Many participants took the dressing-with-humor approach. How else can one explain adult men wearing trousers embroidered with small animals? Or adult women in hot pink and acid green that made even the lush grass of Great Meadow look drab?

Others chose the subtle approach, wearing well-bred tweeds, silks and linens. An important part of this look is the ability to negotiate sometimes-damp grass without appearing distressed.

As in clothes, the important thing with food is to avoid visible anxiety. You want things to look refined, not stuffy.

For that reason, race picnics have a style all their own. No glass was allowed on the grounds, so the crystal had to be left at home, but that didn't stop the devoted from bringing out the silver candelabras and cutlery, flowers, linens and china. A good example of alfresco elegance was the spread thrown by Alice and Les Lanier of Sumerduck, Va. "It's taken me a few years to get the hang of this," confided Alice Lanier. "All year I look for recipes for cold food."

The effort had paid off for the Laniers, whose spread was one of the most admired at Great Meadow. In the spirit of the day, they had decorated two full-to-capacity tables with yellow roses in brass vases shaped like hunting horns.

"Please have something to eat," said Les Lanier to all who wandered by. "I'll be eating chicken all week."

In food, clothes and even cars, what a day at the races really requires is the proper attitude, an almost studied casualness. Take the aforementioned True Davis.

Like the Barrows, who couldn't pinpoint the model year of their Bentley, True Davis had the proper, nonchalant attitude toward his car, one of a noted collection. "I'm the world's worst advertisement for Rolls-Royce," he said. "I just can't keep them out of the shop."