04/10/2003 12:00AM

7 & 7 format returns after one year absence


CINCINNATI, Ohio - River Downs begins its 78th season of racing Saturday afternoon. This year marks the return of the 7 & 7 alternating-race format with Thistledown after a one-year absence.

The 122-day meeting runs through Sept. 1, with racing scheduled six days a week with Wednesdays dark.

With the exception of five days in April, including opening day, as well as Tuesdays throughout the meeting, River Downs will run its races as part of a 7 & 7 program with Thistledown. The arrangement had been in effect in Ohio for nearly a decade but was discontinued last year because officials at River and Beulah Park failed to reach a contractual agreement with officials from Magna, which operates Thistledown.

The main changes at River this year are in the track's administration positions, Several officials will make the 100-mile trip here from Beulah Park to work. Beulah's racing secretary Ed Vomacka and his assistant, Tim Richardson, have accepted similar positions at River, replacing Gary Wilfert and Butch Cook, who both took management positions at Indiana Downs.

Beulah track announcer Bill Downes and simulcast coordinator Brian DeJong will also work the River meeting, replacing Sean Beirne, who held both positions last year but has since moved to Evangeline Downs.

On the track, Albert Palacios, who won the training title by a 29-28 margin over Ron Powell last year, is back. Both Powell and third-place finisher Dennis Moore also are back and should be strong factors throughout the meet.

John McKee, one of the top apprentices in the nation in 2002, will not defend his 2002 River Downs riding title, and veterans Perry Ouzts, Larry Taylor, and Hector Rosario Jr. will chase the title this year. Ouzts, Taylor, and Rosario finished third through fifth in the standings last year. Bill Troilo, who finished second in the jockey standings last year, begins the meeting riding at Indiana Downs's inaugural Thoroughbred meeting.

The highlight of the River Downs meeting once again will be the $200,000 Cradle Stakes for 2-year-olds at 1 1/16 miles on Sept. 1.

Activity at the entry box was solid for the opening-day card as 78 horses are entered on the eight-race card. But entries may he hard to come by for the next few months. River Downs draws many horses from Beulah, and that track has struggled to fill entries for the past month and it still has three weeks remaining in its meeting. Additionally, River faces added competition from Indiana Downs, which opened Friday and runs through May 26. Indiana Downs, located less than 100 miles from River, offers significantly higher purses in races with the same conditions.

River Downs will have a special first post of 2:05 p.m. Eastern on Saturday. The normal first post this meeting is 12:55 p.m.