In Camden, S.C., the Carolina Cup Racing Association gave about $90,000 last year to the local Kershaw County Medical Center.

In Columbus, Ga., executives from the Steeplechase at Callaway Gardens estimate that they have given $1.5 million in the last 15 years to local arts organizations.

And in Nashville, the Volunteer State Horseman's Foundation that puts on the Iroquois Steeplechase Race has given millions of dollars to Vanderbilt Children's Hospital, $435,000 last year alone.

Meanwhile, here at home, officials of the Virginia Gold Cup Association estimate that, before last year, their donations to outside charities in the previous 15 years from income generated by two races--spring and fall each year--have totaled less than $20,000.

With steeplechasing a sport of the upper crust, Gold Cup officials have worried publicly that their relatively small contributions to local charities foster an image of greed and snobbery.

That is a matter of dispute, however, since the association has, during that same time, given an estimated total of $4.5 million to the Meadow Outdoors Foundation for the upkeep of one of the country's premier steeplechase courses and, not coincidentally, the playground of some of the wealthiest residents in the Washington area.

The money that ends up outside the symbiotic partnership of the two tax-exempt groups responsible for the Gold Cup races is at the heart of a spat that flared out into the open earlier this year and threatens the future of the events.

The disagreement continues to linger going into Saturday's running of the International Gold Cup steeplechase race, which is expected to attract thousands of spectators to its racecourse in The Plains, off Route 17 in northern Fauquier County.

"It's in the background, that's for sure," said Melville Church III, chairman of the Virginia Gold Cup.

The two groups, which are made up of some of the biggest names--and egos--in the equestrian world, have been at odds over how much of the income from the races should go toward maintaining Great Meadow, the venue for the events in The Plains, and how much should go to outside charities.

To date, the overwhelming majority of the Gold Cup Association's charitable giving has been directed toward the Meadow Outdoors Foundation, which maintains the racecourse. That changed last year when the association's board approved giving $100,000 to a free clinic in Warrenton.

Partly because of that gift, the Meadow Outdoors Foundation has terminated its lease with the Virginia Gold Cup Association, which administers the fall and spring races, for the use of the property. Unless an extension is signed soon, the Gold Cup, which began in 1922, will need to find a new home.

The boards of both groups have gone back and forth on details of the lease extension for months and could be close to a deal. David M. Snyder, chairman of the Meadow Outdoors Foundation, says a new lease is close at hand: "It should be signed by the end of the month."

Church said he isn't so sure. "There have been major difficulties. But I hope we can work through them," he said.

Central to the dispute has been Arthur W. "Nick" Arundel, who serves on the boards of both groups but recently resigned in protest as chairman of the spring races for the Gold Cup Association. Arundel, the multimillionaire chairman of Herndon-based ARCOM Publishing, donated 108 acres of the Great Meadow land in 1981 and owns 72 adjacent acres used for the race, so his opinion carries great weight.

A letter from Arundel last week threatened to shut down Saturday's Gold Cup because, Arundel wrote, the association owed more than $80,000 to the Meadow Outdoors Foundation. That matter was resolved, but only after a last-minute meeting of both boards, a signal that relations between them are far from perfect.

Arundel, well respected in the equestrian community, did not return phone calls seeking comment. In earlier interviews and in his letter resigning from the spring race, he expressed displeasure over the gift to the free clinic, saying that the money should have gone for upkeep of Great Meadow.

Officials from the other steeplechase races that give much more money to outside charities were careful not to criticize the Meadow Outdoors Foundation or Arundel.

"I can empathize with Nick Arundel and his committee," said Austin Brown, chairman of the foundation that runs the Carolina Cup races. "It's always a question of how much to give to charity, how much to use for purses and how much to plow back into the facility and so on."

Henry W. Hooker, chairman of the Iroquois Steeplechase Race committee, said, "I don't know of a steeplechase that doesn't make money for charity." But he added that he understands Arundel's argument that the upkeep of Great Meadow, which is used for several other events, such as wine tastings and youth soccer, is a charity in itself.

"The essence of the controversy is [payment for] all the other things that they do at the course," Hooker said. "The question is, 'What is given back to the community?' Are all these other things that Great Meadow does, is that charity?"

Meadow Outdoors Foundation literature from 1984 states that one of its core missions is to support "Fauquier County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Squads and other community charities." A letter from Arundel, dated 1990, cites support of volunteer fire and rescue squads as well.

On the foundation's 1998 tax forms, the only mention of support to local fire and rescue companies was a $200 contribution to The Plains Volunteer Fire Company. The foundation's total revenue that year, according to the tax forms, was $762,239.