"Racing would be an incredible amount of fun if it was just the horses," observed James L. "Jimmy" Young, an official in today's International Gold Cup Race.

"And not the horses' " behinds, added his colleague S.D. "Sonny" Phillips.

The two were making a survey yesterday of Great Meadow, scene of today's steeplechase. They checked the course and its dozens of jumps in final preparation for an event that draws thousands of tailgaters along with a smattering of Washington elite and creates parking hassles and traffic jams over much of northern Fauquier County.

This fall, the race was threatened by fractious horse-country politics.

While Phillips and Young, who serve as stewards, or top officials in the race, have devoted themselves to defending the faith of sportsmanship and ensuring the safety of the riders and their horses in what can be a brutal sport, the people behind the scenes of the Gold Cup have been slinging mud at each other for months. Only recently have they reached an accommodation that allowed today's racing, which begins at 1:30 p.m., to proceed as usual.

Two tax-exempt groups have for 15 years cooperated to put on the semiannual races, but this year, relations between them have reached a low point.

In the past year, the Meadow Outdoors Foundation, responsible for the upkeep of the course, terminated the lease of the Virginia Gold Cup Association, which puts on the races, in part because the association gave its surplus revenues to a free clinic in Warrenton instead of plowing them back into the maintenance of the 108-acre Great Meadow.

At the center of the controversy has been publisher and equestrian promoter Arthur W. "Nick" Arundel. In 1983, he donated the meadow to the foundation. He also owns dozens of adjacent acres that include part of the racecourse and a parking area.

Therefore Arundel, who serves on the boards of both organizations, is a voice to be reckoned with. After the Gold Cup Association's $100,000 gift to the free clinic, Arundel resigned in protest as chairman of the spring race, the Virginia Gold Cup.

Other steeplechase races donate to outside charities such as arts groups and children's hospitals as a matter of course, but Arundel argues that Great Meadow, which preserves open space and promotes the steeplechase, is a worthy charity on its own.

Steeplechase racing, which takes riders over a variety of walls and fences, got its name in England, where riders raced to distant steeples.

"It's the story of two great athletes, the rider and the horse," Arundel said, describing why he loves the sport. "Very few sports in the world have anything like it. It's all just like a great cavalry charge before a lawn picnic. I love it."

When Arundel sought to force the Gold Cup Association to give its surplus to Great Meadow, he raised the ire of many, including an old childhood pal, association board Chairman Melville Church III. The Arundel outlook simply contributes to the "greedy" and "snobbish" image of the horsey set, Church grumped.

Arundel, who serves as president of the Meadow Outdoors Foundation, said he was "optimistic" that things can be worked out, and that a new lease extension will be signed soon.

Others say there are still "major difficulties" that could threaten future racing at Great Meadow.

Yesterday, someone affiliated with one of the two groups was jokingly explaining to a reporter, in melodramatic tones, the "villainy" behind the dispute, when Phillips, a part owner of a funeral home, showed up. Didn't he have an opinion on what was going on?

"No, no, no, no," he said, turning his back on the conversation. "I work too many of these events."

Along with Duncan Patterson, the presiding steward, who lives in Rockland, Del., and comes down for the events, Young and Phillips have run the race together for 11 years. Besides checking to make sure the dimensions of the jumps and their distances from one another are just so, the three adjudicate disputes between riders, relying often on videotape replay.

Some of the fouls occur when riders "herd" other horses off course, or try other subtle tricks of intimidation to give them a literal leg up on the competition.

"It can be dangerous when you have a 1,200-pound animal traveling at 30 miles an hour," Phillips said, explaining the importance of closely regulating each race. So far, the Gold Cup has not seen a human fatality, but horses have been killed.

The stewards also oversee the weighing of the jockeys and the saddling of the horses. "We are the ultimate authorities on what happens during the course of the race," said Young, a cattle and horse farmer.

But not before or after, where the current disputes have arisen.

"We leave that to other people," Young said.

After the events are run, the stewards have one last duty, to compose a written account for the National Steeplechase Association. And then the real race begins, Young said, "the race to the bar."

CAPTION: Race stewards James L. "Jimmy" Young, left, and S.D. "Sonny" Phillips have been getting the Great Meadow course ready for today's International Gold Cup steeplechase and trying to avoid the arguments surrounding it.