It looked something like a grand Broadway opening, Argentine-style. In the city's posh district of Palermo, luxury convertibles rolled up in front of a crowd of shoving photographers to release wave after wave of the country's high society, draped in pearls and full-length furs.

Last of all, in a brown suit and dark glasses, was President Reynaldo Bignone, who smiled and waved before taking his place with the assembled elite amid an expectant hush.

Buenos Aires' most heralded event of the year had begun, not in the baroque Colon opera house, but in a dusty stadium filled with cows, horses, sheep and a long line of snorting bulls.

It was the 96th annual National Exhibition of Livestock, Agriculture and Industry, a celebration of Argentina's rich grassland, cowboys and cattle smack in the middle of the aloof, affected capital built with surpluses of grain and beef.

Opening this month amid an economic crisis and political uncertainty, the three-week show on a 20-acre site has drawn more than 4,000 purebred animals and 1.5 million Argentines who come to cheer the shorthorns and Hereford that feed the country, pay its debts, and nourish all its treasured dreams of grandness.

"In Palermo's outlines are the respectable ranch and the foul slaughterhouse," writes the author Jorge Luis Borges.

In this proud district of wide avenues, stylized parks and cantilevered apartment buildings, Argentines like to believe they have created a European oasis.

The real strength of the country, though, lies in its vast temperate grasslands, the pampas, whose agricultural products make up nearly 70 percent of Argentina's exports.

"This is the pride of Argentina," intoned an announcer at the gala opening before the crowded stadium and a national television audience. "This is the product of the land, where we were born and where we grew, which carries all of our anxieties and our hopes."

Indeed, in a host of tin-roofed barns and old stone arcades at the Palermo fairgrounds, there is a taste of all that makes up Argentine culture.

Beneath the grandstands where the privileged sit are long rows of red, wooden stalls filled with exquisitely groomed Argentine horses and, here and there, cowboys, the gauchos, atop fragrant bales of hay with guitars and bowls of mate', a strong herbal tea.

In an aisle through a crowd of bulls, a gaucho can be seen carefully spray-painting black the hooves of a prized angus while its city owners, rich with a carefully preserved Edwardian air, severely look on.

"It's not a joke," explained one nearby cattle breeder. "This is an important business for us."

The point of the show, in fact, is to parade all of the finest purebred livestock before conventional farmers and cattlemen, who later buy them at auction to breed with their grazing stocks.

When all the manicuring, brushing, and braiding of tails are done, judges pick the best animals amid wild cheering. A year's fortunes are made on blue, red and gold prize ribbons.

Both the winners and their prices also give a hint of where the agricultural economy -- and with it, the country -- is going.

At the Santa Gertrudis breeders' reception on opening day, the talk was mainly of small herds, falling prices, and reduced consumer demand for beef.

Even now, with prices pushed up in part by special government measures, the cattle breeders expect a recent collapse of the Argentine peso to undercut any gains.

Horacio Reggiani, the head of the Santa Gertrudis association, tried to sound a positive note. "There's a strong outlook for the economy in the world, and the people are strong; we are moving into a cycle of good prices."

But he was interrupted quickly by burly Jose Osvaldo Travaglia from the city of Cordoba. "The prices might be good in pesos, but in dollars, don't even ask," he said, sipping a bottle of special Santa Gertrudis wine. "For the price of a steak sandwich in dollars, you could buy the whole bull here now."

This state of affairs is something of an embarrassment to the Argentine Rural Society, the blue-blood organization that has managed the Palermo show since 1875 and champions the conservative, free-market policies now popularly blamed for Argentina's economic crisis.

In fact, chiseled in stone over one of the society's central pavilions at Palermo is the name of its founder, Jose Alfredo Martinez de Hoz, whose grandson of the same name was Argentina's economy minister between 1976 and last year and is the favorite target of the press and poliicians here.

The large-ranch owners who traditionally have directed the society defiantly issued a statement at the fair arguing that the nation's problems were the result of not fully effecting conservative economic measures. But the military government's agriculture minister won the most cheers by announcing state-subsidized incentives for cattle breeders and farmers.

Most people, meanwhile, ignored the talk of politics. There was the prize-winning bull to see, draped with the Argentine flag, and the calf born in midshow and named Malvinas, for Argentina's name and claim for the Falkland Islands.

Outside were a solar energy house, shining new tractors and combines, an energy company's exhibit in a big plastic bubble, and the old presidential railroad car Pope John Paul II used here last June.

"This is our great fiesta," said Juan Camion, a 64-year-old horseman who has been to every Palermo show since 1938. "This is when all the people come out to salute the countryside and feel good about Argentina.

"It doesn't matter what has happened," he added. "This is a good year for the show."