02/28/2002 12:00AM

Gold Cup a big deal down Barbados way

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The Sandy Lane Barbados Gold Cup at Garrison Savannah Racetrack is one of the annual highlights of the Barbadian racing calendar, and Saturday's running of the $107,000 (U.S.) race will have an extra dimension.

Horse racing in Barbados dates to 1845, and the Barbados Turf Club was formed in 1905. But the racing has received little attention beyond the confines of Barbados, a 258-square-mile Caribbean island with a population of 275,000.

That will change on Saturday when the Barbados Gold Cup debuts on the North American simulcast scene, with Fair Grounds acting as the wagering hub for some 70 locations across the continent.

Veteran announcer Dave Johnson will provide the call for the 1 1/8-mile turf feature, which will be programmed as the 11th race at Fair Grounds but will be run between the sixth and seventh races with post time set for 4:14 p.m Eastern.

"It will be shown live on TVG," said Robert Bourque, the president of the Barbados Turf Club. "It's a historical breakthrough for us."

A crowd of up to 15,000 is expected to be on hand for the Gold Cup, which will take place in what Bourque calls a "carnival-like atmosphere.

"You're very close to the track," he said. "It's very intimate; you're almost on top of the horses. It's quite magical."

One prominent North American owner who has become caught up in the Gold Cup mystique is Eugene Melnyk, who has some 120 horses in training plus another 50 yearlings and 50 broodmares.

The Canadian-born Melnyk lives in Barbados and his company, the pharmaceutical giant Biovail Corporation, has one of its many offices there.

Melnyk became the first owner based outside the Caribbean to test the waters in the Gold Cup last year. But his candidate, Blacksage Alley, had problems negotiating the six-furlong oval, winding up a distant last in the field of 12.

But Melnyk has learned from last year's experience. His three entrants for this year's Gold Cup - Warleigh, Airy Hill, and Skeete's Bay - all arrived in Barbados well in advance of the feature and have had prep races over the Garrison Savannah strip.

Warleigh, who was making his first start since winning under allowance terms at Calder Dec. 3, captured the Barbados National Bank Stakes prepping for the Gold Cup.

Airy Hill, who had been off since finishing fourth in an Aqueduct allowance Nov. 24, also was successful in his Gold Cup prep. Skeete's Bay, whose previous outing was a fourth-place finish in Woodbine's Oct. 28 Sky Classic Handicap, was a disappointing seventh in the same race as Airy Hill but later was found to be suffering from a low blood count and has been training well recently.

The trainer of record for the trio will be Sean Hall, who won the Gold Cup with Rambrino in 1996. Hall, born in Barbados, relocated to Woodbine in 1998 and now operates a public stable with Melnyk among his clients.

"It's looking to be probably the biggest Gold Cup they've ever had down here, as far as interest is concerned, and as far as the competitiveness of the race," said Melnyk. "It's going to be a big deal."

While Melnyk has won major North American events such as the Queen's Plate, as co-owner of Archers Bay, and the Jim Dandy and Arkansas Derby with Graeme Hall, he said that success in the Gold Cup would be special.

"To me, it's huge," said Melnyk, who has named all the horses whom he purchased and bred for places in Barbados. "It's where I live; it's my home. It's a very small island - everybody in your neighborhood, everybody in the country, knows that you're running horses in this race."

Outside of the Melynk trio, the only other Gold Cup entrant who may be familiar to North American followers is Blast of Storm, an Irish-bred who will be seeking an unprecedented third straight victory in the race.

Trained by the 83-year-old Bill Marshall, a multiple Barbadian training champion, Blast of Storm raced three times during a two-month stint at Woodbine last summer, including an Atto Mile appearance where he finished ninth but was beaten just 6 1/2 lengths.

The jockeys, however, are quite another matter. No less than eight riders who began their careers in Barbados but now compete in Canada are named on the 13 horses entered for the race.

Patrick Husbands, who last December picked up his third consecutive Sovereign Award as Canada's outstanding jockey, will ride Warleigh.

Emile Ramsammy, a double Sovereign Award winner, has the mount on Adawar, who is one of three Trinidadian challengers.

Jono Jones, who made a favorable impression last year in his first campaign at Woodbine, will be looking for his third straight Gold Cup aboard Blast of Storm.

Chris Griffith, who was Fort Erie's leading rider last year, and Simon Husbands will ride the other Melnyk entrants, and Alberta riders Anderson Trotman and Ricky Walcott will pilot Barbadian-based runners.

Anderson Ward, who competes at Manitoba's Assiniboia Downs, is named on Alaska Pete, who is the "alternate" in the race, which will be limited to 12 starters.