04/05/2005 11:00PM

In 80th year, River rolls on

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River Downs in Cincinnati begins its 2005 racing season on Friday, and if the mood around the track these days is celebratory, it is quite understandable.

This year marks the 80th anniversary of the track's opening, and despite numerous obstacles, River Downs remains alive and well. In its eight decades of existence, River Downs has survived floods, the Great Depression, ontrack business declines, and the onslaught of alternative gaming - forces that have spelled doom for other tracks.

As in years past, River Downs will run a 122-day meet, with closing day scheduled for Labor Day, Sept. 5. The $200,000 Miller Lite Cradle Stakes for 2-year-olds at 1 1/16 miles, the traditional closing-day feature, anchors a stakes schedule worth $755,000. The filly counterpart to the Cradle, the $100,000 Pepsi Bassinet Stakes, will be run Sept. 3. The remaining 11 stakes, eight of which are scheduled for the turf, are restricted to Ohio-breds.

One unexpected change this season is that the Cradle, which was upgraded to a Grade 3 last season by the American Graded Stakes Committee, lost that grade for this year's renewal.

"I was shocked," said John Englehardt, River Downs's longtime track publicist. "Normally a track would get a letter of warning about a possible grade reduction, and we didn't get that."

Since the grade reduction was announced late last year, Bellamy Road and Scipion, first and third in the 2004 Cradle, have each been included in DRF's Derby Watch list this spring. Scipion captured the Grade 3 Risen Star Stakes in February before being sidelined by an injury.

Several changes will greet horsemen and fans this meet. The base of the main track has been reinforced with a plastic grid called Tensar BX1200 that is expected to better handle the constant usage the track will see over the long meet. It is the first time such a grid has been used at a Thoroughbred track, according to Marty Stringer, track assistant general manager.

An improvement more noticeable to patrons is the new horseshoe-shaped bar adjacent to the paddock.

Also new to River Downs this year is announcer Brian deJong, whose most recent full-time announcing position was at Scioto Downs, a harness track near Columbus.

River Downs will once again race in a 7&7 alternating format, with either Beulah Park or Thistledown, five days a week. River Downs will race solo on Tuesdays.

* To commemorate River Downs's anniversary, Daily Racing Form will be available for purchase ontrack Friday for 80 cents.

* DRF handicapper Dan Illman will be at River Downs on Saturday to sign copies of his book, "Betting Maidens & 2-Year-Olds."

At a glance: River Downs

RACING SCHEDULE: 122 days; Friday through Sept. 5. Dark Wednesdays, except June 1 and July 6. Dark April 11-13, 18-20, 25-27; May 3; May 31; July 5; Aug 22

POST TIME: 1:15 p.m. Eastern, except Fridays starting May 27 when first post is 2:30 p.m. Eastern

HIGHLIGHTS: $200,000 Cradle Stakes, Sept. 5; $100,000 Bassinet Stakes, Sept. 3

ADMISSIONS: General, free

SEATING: Grandstand, free; clubhouse $3

PARKING: General, free; preferred, $3

LOCATION: 6301 Kellogg Ave., Cincinnati, Ohio 45230

SIMULCASTING: Daily

PHONE: (513) 232-8000

INTERNET: www.riverdowns.com