04/06/2004 11:00PM

Cradle again graded

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River Downs, the picturesque course on the banks of the Ohio River near Cincinnati, opens for its 79th season of racing Friday afternoon. The 122-day meet runs through Labor Day, Sept. 6.

Highlighting the meet is the $200,000 Miller Genuine Draft Cradle Stakes for 2-year-olds on closing day, which has Grade 3 status for the first time in more than a decade. The Cradle's counterpart for fillies, the $100,000 Pepsi Bassinet, is the only other open stakes scheduled this year and will be run on Sept. 4.

The Cradle, which was a Grade 3 race from 1986 through 1992, has seen its stock rise with the success of recent winners Mongoose and the Ohio-bred Harlan's Holiday, both of whom went on to become Grade 1 winners. The Cradle, contested at 1 1/16 miles, holds the distinction of being the earliest two-turn graded race for 2-year-olds in the country.

The Bassinet, which has been won by such luminaries as the champion filly Caressing in 2000, will receive more exposure this year as part of a national broadcast on ESPN2. Eleven stakes restricted to Ohio-breds complete the stakes schedule, the richest being the $75,000 Queen City Oaks for 3-year-old fillies on July 31.

River Downs will host the inaugural $50,000 River Downs Vegas Championship, a handicapping tournament, on July 17-18. The top three finishers will earn a spot in the 2005 Daily Racing Form/National Thoroughbred Racing Association Handicapping Championship in Las Vegas.

River Downs will race only on weekends during the first two weeks of the meet before settling into its normal schedule. River Downs will race in a 7 & 7 program with Beulah Park until April 26, when it will begin alternating races with Thistledown. River Downs will race solo every Tuesday, and will be dark on Wednesdays.

At a glance: River Downs

RACING SCHEDULE: 122 days; April 9 through Sept. 6. Dark Wednesdays except June 2 and July 7. Dark April 11-15 and 19-22; June 1; July 6; Aug. 31.

POST TIME: 1:15 p.m. Eastern.

HIGHLIGHTS: Grade 3, $200,000 Cradle Stakes, Sept. 6; $100,000 Bassinet Stakes, Sept. 4

ADMISSIONS: Free general admission.

SEATING: Free grandstand, $3 clubhouse.

PARKING: Free general, $3 preferred.

LOCATION: 6301 Kellogg Ave., Cincinnati, Ohio 45230

SIMULCASTING: Daily except Easter Sunday (April 11)

PHONE: (513) 232-8000

INTERNET: www.riverdowns.com