02/27/2003 12:00AM

Home-field bragging rights

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BRIDGETOWN, Barbados - Eugene Melnyk has hundreds of Thoroughbreds and has won many races worth more money than the $110,000 Sandy Lane Barbados Gold Cup. But the Gold Cup, held virtually in his backyard at the Garrison Savannah Racetrack near Bridgetown, Barbados, is a race he dearly wants to win.

"It would be one of the most thrilling things for me in horse racing to win it," said Melnyk.

A 43-year-old from Toronto, Melnyk, who founded the multi-million dollar pharmaceutical company Biovail, has been living in Barbados for 13 years with his wife, Laura, and two children.

"Anybody who lives here wants to win this race," said Melnyk. "It's like combining the Royal Ascot meeting, the Kentucky Derby, Queen's Plate, and Mardi Gras all into one. That's what the atmosphere is like."

Melnyk loves the island so much he names most of his horses after places in Barbados, and his royal blue and golds silks are the same colors as the Bajan flag. And, thanks in part to Melnyk's pursuit of the Gold Cup, the race is gaining in popularity with North American horsemen. For the second year, Saturday's Gold Cup will be simulcast in North America and will be televised live on the Television Games Network.

"The fact that he's been trying to win it the last three years, and the presence he has in North American racing, has heightened the interest in the race," said Chris Armond, racing secretary for the Barbados Turf Club. "We had people from Kentucky and Florida calling about the race this year, but unfortunately they were a little late for the quarantine requirements. We're hoping that next year we will have even more participation from the U.S."

This year's 14-horse field - which includes two "reserves," or also-eligibles - is easily the best group assembled for the Gold Cup in its 22-year history. Horses from the stables of Todd Pletcher, Mark Casse, and Bobby Frankel spent the required two weeks in quarantine and are ready to take on the locals in the 1 1/8-mile turf race around the tight bends of the Garrison Savannah.

Pletcher, who saddled Archers Bay to win the Queen's Plate for Melnyk in 1998, has Warleigh and Zoning in the Gold Cup. "It's an important race for [Melnyk]," said Pletcher, who will be visiting Barbados for the first time. "It's in his home town and it's something he's taken an interest in."

Mark Casse and Pat Husbands, the leading trainer and rider in Canada last year, also have a Melnyk horse in the race - his latest purchase, Waltzin' Storm.

"A bunch of my employees from Woodbine are from Barbados," said Casse. "It's very exciting for them. They've been asking me to take Waltzin' Storm down [here] for a while now. They keep telling me he'll win the Gold Cup."

Husbands, who was born in Barbados, won the 1989 Gold Cup at the age of 16 and was the leading rider at the Garrison Savannah in '93.

"I think Patrick would rather win this race than the Kentucky Derby," said Casse.

Thady Quill, a former Frankel trainee now in the hands of 84-year-old Bill Marshall, was one of the better turf milers in California last year. His presence is a coup for the Gold Cup. "I think Thady Quill is the best horse to ever come to this country to race," said Armond.

This is the third year in a row that Melnyk will try to win the Gold Cup. Two years ago he sent out Blacksage Alley, who finished last, and he had three in last year, when his Warleigh was a narrowly beaten second.

Blast of Storm, who has won the last three runnings, is not back for a shot at a fourth. The horse was retired to stud last year.