SOME PEOPLE never learn. Take this Saturday, for instance, when hundreds of Washingtonians will pack into bars and friends' living rooms in an attempt to recreate Churchill Downs by tippling bourbon and tuning in to the 108th Run For The Roses.

Some may even venture out to the Kentucky bluegrass along with 100,000 or so other horse fans to join the Frisbee-throwing rowdies in the infield or the select few in "millionaire's row."

Then again, they could have the real thing--and the winning ticket--just about an hour south of town. Minus the crowd-choked streets and ramshackle stands, minus the choice of concession food versus eating before the race. Out in the sunshine, on the grassy hillsides of a Virginia estate, with real live horseflesh and racing silks. A picnic/cocktail/great-outdoors party all rolled into one.

It's the 57th Warrenton Gold Cup--the Old Dominion's answer to the Louisville races. Six events--the Gold Cup Race itself is the fifth of six--"four miles over timber," as they say on the racing circuit. And it happens each year on the first Saturday in May, 1:30 p.m. sharp. "Derby Day" is not even in an old-time Warrentonian's lexicon nor on his calendar.

And that's not the full story; according to whom you ask, the horses often play a lesser role in the greater scheme of Gold Cup Day.

"The socializing and picnicking and people are at least three-quarters of it," says Doris Kearney, who has lived in Warrenton for the past 13 years. "Though many people around here would say it's the horses," she adds with a laugh.

For this former Arlington resident, race day is a time to entertain what has now become a large extended family. Two married sons and their families, a third son and his friends from Washington, neighbors and in-laws.

"Last year, we had 26 or 28," she says, "but this year's count is not in yet."

To turn out a picnic for this crowd, she starts several days in advance. The menu is traditional Virginia fare--cold fried chicken, ham rolls, deviled eggs, potato salad, an un-iced cake and, of course, mint juleps. (This last concoction, maintained a University of Virginia scholar in a book published several years ago, was invented by a Virginian and not by some rascal from Kentucky.)

The julep production, Kearney says, is always left to her son Jim and his friend Rich Stroup--both Washington attorneys who, through trial and error, have gradually worked out the correct proportions of shaved ice to bourbon to simple syrup infused with mint. (Heavy on the bourbon, light on the syrup, with plenty of mint leaves for distraction.) Those first in line might get their juleps in chilled Jefferson cups (a Virginia touch, of course) which have had their rims dipped in confectioners' sugar; latecomers have to make do with bar glasses. "I provide the mint patch," Kearney says, "or borrow more mint from the next-door neighbors." Otherwise, the cook is out of the kitchen, all the preparation having been completed the night before.

Properly cheered, the caravan heads from the Kearney home for the race grounds, which are located just off U.S. Rte. 29 South, the main drag through Warrenton. No massive crowds or choking fumes from charter buses here. But horse vans and pickups and Rolls-Royces, yes.

It's then that the serious eating and people-watching begins. Hunt-country folk are out in full force, strolling around the paddock area to check out the entries and to chat with owners. Bookmakers set up their chalkboards, as state troopers move through the lines of eager bettors. Many of the rest of the racegoers don't know a fetlock from a furlong, as the expression goes, and seem more intent on moving from tailgate to tailgate (or picnic basket to picnic basket, as the case may be). Twenty varieties of French cheeses, wild rice-asparagus salad and a clean garbage pail full of iced champagne for one crowd. The next tailgate down: chicken salad, marinated vegetables, Sally Lunn bread and a cooler of beer and wine. Over on the grass, a blanket spread with take-out fried chicken, macaroni salad and more beer.

Forget the Derby Day parties. Cheering on No. 6 in the third, between the ham roll and the bourbon--now that's the way to spend the first Saturday in May. And you may just be able to get home in time for that other race.

Here are some recipes from among the picnic baskets.

SOUTHAMPTON HAM 10- to 12-pound Smithfield or Virginia country ham* 6 to 7 cups cold water (5 1/2 cups cold water plus 1 1/2 cups dry sherry optional)

Soak ham overnight or for about 8 hours in water to cover. Rinse ham under running water and scrub off pepper coating with a stiff brush. Place in a roaster and add the water and the optional sherry. Place a tightly fitting lid on the roaster, making sure that any vents are shut. Put ham in a 500-degree oven and cook 15 to 20 minutes. Turn off oven and leave the oven door shut; for the next 6 hours or more, the oven door must remain closed at all times to retain heat necessary to cook ham. Let ham sit in oven for 3 hours, then turn heat back on to 500 degrees. Cook ham 20 to 25 minutes, turn heat off again and allow the ham to sit in the oven undisturbed for another 3 hours or overnight. To make this a simple, one-day affair, soak the ham in the morning. Around 6 p.m., begin the first phase of cooking; at about 9:30, turn the heat back on to complete cooking. Turn off oven and leave ham undisturbed in oven until the next morning. At this time, the rind and excess fat can be cut away and the ham glazed, if desired. Be sure to slice wafer-thin--the only proper way to treat a Virginia ham. Serve with wedges of Sally Lunn or fill buttered yeast rolls with small slices.

*Note: You should not attempt to use this cooking method with a ham larger than 12 pounds.

YEAST ROLLS FROM SPONGE BATTER (Makes about 36 rolls) Sponge: 4 medium potatoes 3 cups cold water 3 tablespoons sugar 1 tablespoon dry active yeast or 1 small cake ( 1/2 ounce) fresh yeast 6 tablespoons sifted flour Batter: 7 cups sifted unbleached white flour 1 cup tepid milk 2 medium eggs, beaten 2 teaspoons salt 3 tablespoons lard 2 tablespoons butter Wash and boil the potatoes in their jackets in the 3 cups of water until the potatoes are soft, 25 to 30 minutes. Remove from pot, reserving cooking water. Peel and mash the potatoes well while they are still warm. Measure out 1 cup of mashed potatoes and place in a clean 1/2-gallon jar with 1 cup of the tepid potato water. (If there isn't enough cooking liquid, add enough cold tap water to fill a cup.) Add sugar, yeast and flour to the jar and stir the mixture gently. Place a teacup over the mouth of the jar and set in a warm spot to "work" overnight. The temperature need not be as high as 80 degrees for this sponge; it will ferment under slightly cooler conditions.

To prepare the batter, place the flour in a large mixing bowl. Pour in the sponge, and stir with a wooden spoon until well mixed. Pour in the tepid milk, beaten eggs and salt. Over a pan of hot water, melt half the lard and 1 tablespoon of the butter and mix into the batter. Continue to stir in a circular motion until the dough is rather smooth and comes off in a sheet when lifted up on a spoon. This will take about 15 minutes. Spoon the dough into a deep, well-greased 5-gallon container (a preserving kettle is perfect) or two smaller bowls. Set in an 80-degree, draft-free place and cover lightly with a clean cloth.

The dough can be set to rise for 4 to 5 hours. Push it down twice during the period of rising, greasing hands first with shortening, and gently pushing down the dough, which should be light and bubbly. When the dough has doubled for the second time, have at hand 2 8-by-8-by-2-inch baking pans, 1 small bread pan and the remaining lard and butter melted together. Pinch off pieces of dough the size of a golf ball. Dip fingers into the melted shortening and grease the dough, rolling it over to make a ball shape. Place each roll in a baking pan close enough to touch the other rolls. Repeat operation until both baking pans are filled; each pan should accommodate 18 rolls. Form any remaining dough into a loaf and place in the small bread pan. Set pans in a warm place to rise 1/2 inch or a bit more above the pan. Bake in a 375-degree oven 20 minutes. Remove from the oven, and let set in the pans for about 5 minutes before serving. Can be cut in half, buttered and filled with wafer-thin slices of country ham. From "The Taste of Country Cooking," Edna Lewis.

SALLY LUNN (Makes 1 10-inch round loaf) 1 cup milk 1/2 cup shortening 4 cups sifted all-purpose flour, divided 1/3 cup sugar 2 teaspoons salt 2 packages active dry yeast 3 eggs

Grease a 10-inch tube or bundt pan and set aside. Heat the milk, shortening and 1/4 cup water until very warm, about 120 degrees. Shortening does not need to melt. Blend 1 1/3 cups flour, the sugar, salt and dry yeast into a large mixing bowl. Blend warm liquids into the flour mixture and beat with an electric mixer at medium speed for about 2 minutes, scraping the sides of the bowl occasionally. Gradually add about 2/3 cup of the remaining flour and the eggs, and beat at high speed for 2 minutes. Add the remaining 2 cups of flour and mix well. Batter will be thick but not stiff. Cover with a clean towel and let rise in a warm, draft-free place (about 85 degrees) until double in bulk, about 1 hour and 15 minutes. Beat dough down with a spatula or at the lowest speed on an electric mixer and turn into a prepared pan. Cover again and let rise in a warm, draft-free place until increased in bulk by a third or a half, about 30 minutes. Bake in a 350-degree oven for 40 to 50 minutes. Remove from oven and run a sharp knife around the center circle and outer edges of the bread and turn onto a rack to cool completely. From "The Williamsburg Cookbook," the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. DORIS KEARNEY'S RACE DAY POTATO SALAD (10 to 12 servings)

12 medium potatoes, boiled in jackets

2 onions, thinly sliced

Salt and pepper to taste

4 to 6 slices crisp cooked bacon, drippings reserved

3 tablespoons cider vinegar

1 1/2 to 2 cups mayonnaise

Cool the potatoes, peel and thinly slice. Add the onions, salt and pepper to taste and crumbled bacon. In a small bowl, beat reserved bacon drippings with vinegar, then pour over potatoes and toss until all ingredients are well combined. Add mayonnaise, enough to moisten the salad. The amount may vary, depending on the variety of potatoes used; some absorb mayonnaise more readily than others. Cover salad and refrigerate. This dish is much better if made a day in advance, to allow time for the potatoes to absorb the dressing.

SOUR CREAM POUND CAKE (18 to 20 servings) 1 1/2 cups butter, at room temperature 3 cups sugar 6 large eggs, at room temperature 1 cup sour cream 3 cups all-purpose flour 1/2 teaspoon baking soda 1/8 teaspoon salt 1 teaspoon flavoring (either vanilla, lemon or half vanilla/half almond) 2 tablespoons brandy (optional) Confectioners' sugar for garnish

Cream the butter by hand or using an electric mixer until it reaches the consistency of whipped cream. Slowly dribble in the sugar a tablespoon at a time; beat well. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Stir in the sour cream. Put measured flour into sifter with baking soda and salt and sift three times. Add flour 1/2 cup at a time to the creamed mixture, blending well with mixer set at lowest speed. Add flavoring and brandy, if desired. Beat again to combine thoroughly. Pour batter into a greased 10-inch bundt or tube pan and bake in a 325-degree oven for 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 hours, until the cake tests done. Cool 15 minutes in the pan on a cake rack before turning out on rack to cool completely. Sprinkle with confectioners' sugar. This cake transports very well and may be served with fresh, hulled strawberries and whipped cream.