It is ironic that Albert Coppola should be back in New York, the place he left in the mid-1940s to pursue careers in law and football at George Washington University.

Although he never was a professional prosecutor or defensive lineman, he became a successful businessman, founded the Washington Business School and later settled in McLean. Sometime in between, he started buying horses.

On Saturday, he will watch Runaway Groom, a colt he bought in 1979 for $39,000, run the biggest race of his career.

The 64th running of the $565,000 Jockey Club Gold Cup -- the richest card in New York this year -- bears importance beyond financial reward. The 1 1/2-mile test at Belmont Park is likely to determine the horse of the year and will feature 11 of the nation's finest thoroughbreds.

WDVM-TV-9 will begin race coverage at 5 p.m. with the $240,000 Champagne Cup for 2-year-olds. The Gold Cup will follow, with post time scheduled for 5:42.

Runaway Groom, who in 11 starts has earned six wins, four second-place finishes and $318,000 in purse money, legitimized his horse-of-the-year candidacy by upsetting Aloma's Ruler and Conquistador Cielo in the Travers Stakes at Saratoga in August. He followed with a turf victory in the Breeders Stakes Aug. 26 but ran eighth in his last race, the Lawrence Realization.

Assigned post position 10, Runaway Groom is a 12-to-1 shot.

"He was really full of energy," said jockey Mike Venezia, following today's workout. "I had my hands full."

He certainly will have enough to handle in Timely Writer, the 3-to-1 favorite who probably faces his final race. "We had given some thought to running down at Laurel (in the D.C. International), but what would that prove?" said Timely Writer's owner, Francis Martin. "Even if Timely should lose on Saturday, what would he have to gain running down there?"

Timely Writer, the once-promising 3-year-old, was severely hampered this spring when he required intestinal surgery. His seventh-place finish in the Marlboro Cup here Sept. 18 provoked speculation that he still was not sound. But he recovered with a 7 1/2-length victory in a 1 5/8-mile allowance race on Saturday.

"That race was very important for us," said trainer Dom Imprescia. "It proved once and for all there is nothing wrong physically with the horse. We're still not sure what happened in the Marlboro."

Timely Writer figures to receive a stiff challenge from 4-to-1 shot Lemhi Gold, a nine-length winner in the Marlboro Cup and the field's top money winner at $723,000. A Gold Cup victory would put him over $1 million.

Trainer Laz Barrera will fly Chris McCarron in from California to ride No. 2 Lemhi Gold, who will carry 11 pounds more than he did last race.

Also at 4 to 1 is Christmas Past, the nation's leading 3-year-old filly with victories in the Ruffian Handicap and Monmouth Oaks Stakes and the only female entered in the Gold Cup.

The remainder of the Gold Cup lineup: Khatango, third in the Lawrence Realization, ridden by Reuben Hernandez; World Leader, Jean Cruguet; Winter's Tale, second in the Whitney Handicap, J.D. Bailey; Johnny Dance, fourth in the Lawrence Realization, Bryan Fann; Silver Supreme, second in the Marlboro Cup, third in the Woodward Stakes, Angel Cordero Jr.; Sing Sing, Miguel Rivera; Island Whirl, Woodward Stakes winner, Laffit Pincay Jr.

As a weight-for-age race, 3-year-old colts and geldings -- Timely Writer, Runaway Groom and Khatango -- will carry 121 pounds, the older horses 126. Christmas Past, the filly, will carry 118.

John Henry clinched the horse-of-the-year title and became the top money-winning thoroughbred of all time with a victory last year in the Gold Cup. In the race preceding it, the Champagne Cup, a 2-year-old named Timely Writer rallied around the final turn and won by five lengths.