What the Kentucky Derby is to horse racing, the Virginia Gold Cup is to steeplechasing.

Neither race is the oldest or richest of its kind. But every year, on the first Saturday of May, Derby and Gold Cup fans gather for what can best be described as "the happening."

The Gold Cup is held in Warrenton. And this Saturday you can be one of a crowd of anywhere from 10,000 to 20,000 (depending on the weather), perched on the side of hills overlooking Broadview, the natural amphitheater where the four-mile, 22-jump equine marathon is held.

Tail-gaters, picnickers, the curious and enthusiastic steeplechase fans will be your companions, much the same as in the previous 54 runnings of the race.

The Gold Cup started in 1922, and for more than 50 years the only reward was the Cup itself. Two years ago, organizers began offering a $7,500 prize, but that doesn't come close to the purses at other major races ($200,000 for the Kentucky Derby alone). So, for most competitors, the glory of the event is the real prize.

The history of the Cup is entwined with the parade of horses, riders, trainers, owners and spectators.Things got off to a predictable start in the maiden year of the race, when the favorite, John Bunny, was upset by stablemate Irish Laddie, Irish Laddie's rider was Arthur White, whose son Ridgely has trained five Gold Cup winners, including three-time victor Leeds Don.

Another father-son team has its place in Gold Cup history. In 1964, Frank Bonsal Jr. won the event on Lancrel, 15 years after his father, Frank Bonsal Jr., took the Cup on Dunks Green.

The No. 1 rider in the Cup was Joe Aitcheson Jr., of Laurel, whose seven victories stretch from Grand Chal in 1957 to Annual Meeting in 1971.

Although Aitcheson's record has never been broken, Maryland's Charlie Fenwick is working on a string of wins that could well put him into steeplechase record books. Last year, Fenwick became only the fourth rider to win both the Maryland Hunt Cup and Gold Cup in the same year.

But Fenwick still has not duplicated Al Ober's victory in 1926, when Ober brought home the Hunt Cup and Gold Cup aboard the famed Billy Barton. Billy Barton is the only horse to win both events in the same year. b

One of the best known horses to attempt the Gold Cup was Blockade, the legendary steeplechaser who retired the Maryland Hunt Cup after three straight victories. Racing under the colors of a new owner, but with his regular rider, J. Fred Colwill, Blockade was the odds-on favorite for the 1942 race.

But Blockade misjudged the 17th fence, fell and died instantly of a broken neck.

Incidently, there is no official time for the grueling race, since the length of the course and the number of jumps have changed through the years. The first "unofficial" time was in 1935 when Indigo ran a leisurely 7:34 3/5. The best time in recent years was turned in by Annual meeting with a clocking of 8:27 3/5 in 1971.

Five years ago, Paul Mellon's Chapel Street was the only horse to survive the course, with his 10 rivals falling like the proverbial 10 little Indians.

Mellon, whose gray and yellow Rokeby Stable silks have won just about every major race in America, won his first Gold Cup in 1974 when Mongogo upset the charts to give Mellon "one of my biggest thrills."

The cup has been retired only five times. To retire the cup, an owner must win the race three times, not necessarily with the same horse or with consecutive victories.

Zeke Ferguson was the last owner to retire the Cup when Leeds Don, the brilliant roan gelding, with the bushy tail, won the race in 1965, '66 and '67 by a combined total of 40 lengths under three different riders.

Although there are five other races on the program, the Gold Cup overshadows them all, including the William Rochester Memorial, a two-mile brush handicap which has drawn the cream of America's professional steeplechasers.

The gates at Broadview open at 11 a.m., with the first race on the card starting at 1:30 p.m.

But most spectators probably will be vying for a choice spot on the hill to await the 4 p.m. starting gun of the Gold Cup.

As a visitor once described his view from the "previous winners area" on top of the hill. "It truly is the Woodstock of the horsey set."