In a move that signals a widening split in one of steeplechasing's premier events, Arthur W. "Nick" Arundel resigned last week as chairman of the Virginia Gold Cup, the spring race held just west of Prince William County at Great Meadow in the Plains.

As a result, the race could seek another course in the area -- and another racing organization could be invited to hold races at Great Meadow.

Arundel remains on the board of the Virginia Gold Cup Association, which organizes both the spring and fall Gold Cup races, and as president of the Meadow Outdoors Foundation, which administers Great Meadow, the 108-acre site on Route 17 where both races are held.

Arundel's resignation as spring race chairman comes as negotiators from the association and the foundation continue to haggle over the association's lease at Great Meadow, which expires at the end of this year.

Arundel, multimillionaire chairman of Herndon-based ARCOM Publishing, donated Great Meadow to the foundation in 1983, citing the need to preserve open space. Several adjacent acres he owns also are used for the races, which draw thousands of spectators.

Recently, according to Arundel, the association has "begun shifting its financial support also to other activities and charities" besides the races, and he made clear his objections in his June 2 letter of resignation as spring race chairman. He cited a $100,000 donation to a Warrenton clinic for the indigent, calling it a "worthy charity" that is nonetheless "unrelated to our common purposes in support of the Great Meadow."

In reply, Melville Church III, president of the Gold Cup Association, wrote a letter to Arundel saying that he "had no choice but to resign [as race chairman] because of your conflicts of interest." Church said that committing all of the Gold Cup's money, raised from racegoers and corporate sponsorships, to Great Meadow is bad public relations. "Because almost no money goes to charity, locals perceive Gold Cup as greedy," he wrote.

Arundel said he was confident that a lease extension could be negotiated. But some people familiar with the negotiations were considering the ramifications if Arundel was not appeased, and they said he apparently is considering inviting another race organization to use Great Meadow.

Arundel's resignation letter said that "Great Meadow must travel into the future with an independent steeplechasing organization," devoted not only to steeplechasing "but also fully committed to supporting its essential purposes of open space conservation, visual order and use by community organizations."

Because he owns some of the land that is needed under zoning laws to hold the race, Arundel effectively could veto a decision by either board.

The fall race, the 1999 International Gold Cup, is covered under the current lease and will be held as planned Oct. 16, officials said. The Meadow Outdoors Foundation board will consider the lease June 28.

CAPTION: Virginia Gold Cup, the spring race held at Great Meadow in the Plains, might seek another course in the area because of a dispute in which its chairman resigned.