Though last Saturday dawned overcast and chilly, the cars lined up for two miles outside the gates to the Foxfield Steeplechase race near Charlottesville. Carless University of Virginia students, undaunted by the dreary weather, trudged the five miles up Barracks Road, then Garth Road, toward the races.

Many of the waiting cars could have been seen earlier parked at the Barracks Road ABC store and the local Safeway while their occupants, young women wearing billowy Laura Ashley skirts and with boyfriends in tweed jackets, bought liquor and food for an afternoon of tailgate picnics.

The scene is the annual gathering of thousands of University of Virginia students, graduates, acquaintances and others with more tenuous connections to the school who have, by tradition, descended on Foxfield each year since its opening in 1978 to celebrate with friends and, occasionally, to watch the horses.

"It's the biggest cocktail party in Virginia," said one participant, searching for a way to define this particular horse race.

Once inside the gates, those buying general admission passes steered their cars to a nearby field, then got out and walked the quarter-mile to the infield. Those who paid $50 to $500 parked their cars against the infield rail, where they could observe the races and and on the other side watch finely dressed strollers parade past, drinks in hand.

Each of the six races began with the traditional trumpet call. Small cheers arose as the horses neared the final jumps. The most-involved spectators hung on the rail, urging on their favorites.

Louder cheers came from everyone, however, when it was announced that U.Va.'s football team had beaten Virginia Tech at Blacksburg. Steve Groat, a Foxfield Racing Association official, said that the association used U.Va.'s home football schedule as the criteria for scheduling fall race meets.

While serious horse watchers kept to the rail, many in the younger college crowd partied on the infield around sports cars, station wagons, convertibles and Ford Broncos. Most of the men wore jackets and ties, the women skirts or dresses, a slightly dressier crowd than at many other Virginia steeplechase races.

The day prompted a little informal wagering among friends. A horse named McAdam won the fifth and biggest race, a $15,000 contest, causing one U.Va. student from Lynchburg to lose a small, personal bet with a Hollins College student.

"He owes me dinner at Margarita's -- it's the best Mexican food on The Corner," said the Hollins College student, referring to a row of restaurants and bars adjacent to U.Va.

Groat explained that the profits from the race, which is also held the last Saturday in April, are given to the Childrens Rehabilitation Center at the University of Virginia Hospital. Even the drinking cups, bearing the Foxfield Races' logo, were colored orange with blue lettering, University of Virginia colors.

As the final race ended, a food fight erupted on the infield between a group of Washington and Lee University students and some young children whose families had rented parking spaces next to the students. The projectiles flew through the air, randomly striking some young women in Shetland sweaters, pearls and black pumps. The weaponry turned out to be leftover balogna from the Sigma Phi Epsilon's tailgate picnic.

Bob English, a Sigma Phi from Washington and Lee, said his fraternity came from Lexington for the event. The fraternity bought two inner-rail spaces for $50 apiece, a half-keg of beer and "eight to 10 half-gallons of booze, including Virginia Gentlemen bourbon. We come down here every year," English said.

English was interrupted as Jon Miles, a Sigma Phi brother, recognized a longtime friend, Jessica Freeman, now a Georgetown University student. Freeman said that she and Miles had "gone to brother and sister schools" back home in San Antonio.

"It's to be seen, and to see," said Miles of some passers-by dressed in blue and yellow patchwork madras slacks.

An hour after the race ended, several hundred partyers were still on the infield, gathered around tailgate remains, finishing off the last bit of food and drink.