03/03/2003 1:00AM

Gold Cup a cultural celebration

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ST. MICHAEL, Barbados - From the moment the first marching band and parade of brightly colored dancers emerged on the racetrack last Saturday, a visitor to the Garrison Savannah for the $110,000 Sandy Lane Barbados Gold Cup knew that this was not going to be a typical day of horse racing.

The Gold Cup, the most prestigious race in the Caribbean, is just as much a celebration of the Bajan culture as it is a major race.

This year's running, the 22nd, attracted more attention than usual thanks to the presence of California shipper Thady Quill, the eventual winner, and a three-horse entry from Canada's Eugene Melnyk, a major owner on the North American racing scene, and his trainers Todd Pletcher and Mark Casse.

Banners advertising the event covered the walls of the Grantley Adams International Airport. On the Saturday before the Gold Cup, thousands of locals gathered in the streets of Bridgetown for a parade. And, on the day before the race, fans placed bets on the Gold Cup and enjoyed amateur rider races and foot races involving jockeys and grooms.

On Gold Cup Day, traffic around the racetrack was in gridlock early in the morning. By post time for the first of nine races, about half of the estimated crowd of 15,000 people were crammed in the tiny stands of the Garrison, lined up on the outer perimeter of the six-furlong track in tail-gate gatherings, or in the infield where rows of spectators were eight deep. The infield atmosphere was like a carnival: There were games, stalls of local foods such as jerk chicken and fish cakes, and crafts and jewelry.

In cooperation with Barbados Turf Club president Robert Bourque and the Barbados Tourism Authority, Melnyk, who lives on the island, has been instrumental in attracting interest in the race. His Gold Cup day infield hospitality tent for 120 invited guests was draped in Canadian flags.

"It's a great day," said Melnyk, whose guests were mostly Canadians.

Following a parade of cheerleaders and the Royal Barbados Police band, the horses for the Gold Cup were saddled in the Garrison's small paddock, then led to an infield walking ring and waited to head to the gate while the crowd sang the island's most famous song, "Beautiful Barbados."

Once sprung from the gate, the Gold Cup field races around the tight turns of the Garrison, the horses almost within reaching distance of the spectators.

On Saturday, the Melnyk-owned Warleigh, named for a small town on the west coast of Barbados, took the lead into the stretch, and the crowd noise became deafening. When Thady Quill, under hometown hero Jono Jones, flew past the wire a three-length winner over Zoning, owned by Melnyk, and jockey Slade Callaghan, people spilled onto the track.

The Gold Cup was seen by an estimated 18 million viewers in North America through Television Games Network, Fox Sports, and 60 simulcast outlets. Chris Armond, racing secretary for the Barbados Turf Club, said the club wanted to improve its facility and raise the purse of the Gold Cup for 2004.

"We need to upgrade our track," Armond said, "but the feedback I've had is that everybody had a great time and we can only build on that."