11/14/2003 12:00AM

Pitino: And the winner is . . . me?

Adam Coglianese/NYRA
Della Francesca runs for Rick Pitino in the Grade 3 River City.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Rick Pitino has received many awards in his basketball coaching career, but it's doubtful he ever gave a trophy to himself.

Pitino is scheduled to present the winner's trophy Sunday, following the $150,000 River City Handicap at Churchill Downs, and just might be one of the recipients. Pitino is the part-owner of Della Francesca, the Danzig colt who was good enough to win the Grade 2 Belmont Breeders' Cup and is one of many legitimate contenders in the Grade 3 River City.

As one of the featured honorees on University of Louisville Sports Legend Day at Churchill, Pitino is scheduled to sign autographs for about two hours Sunday. Later in the afternoon, he will be rooting for Della Francesca in the River City, a 1 1/8-mile turf race.

"I think that as the winner of a Grade 2 in New York, he should be very competitive in there," said Niall O'Callaghan, who trains and co-owns Della Francesca. "He's doing extremely well right now."

O'Callaghan said that in order for Della Francesca to launch another winning run, "he probably needs to be about five or six lengths off the pace" in the River City, which has an obvious front-runner in Warleigh and an obvious favorite in stretch-runner Sharbayan.

Although Sharbayan is based in Southern California, he has made all four of his starts this year far from home. That is because he prefers softer ground, according to trainer Wally Dollase.

That ship-to-run strategy clearly has paid off. Sharbayan, an Irish-bred 5-year-old, is 3 for 3 in Kentucky and 1 for 1 in Illinois. Another strong effort Sunday likely would stamp his ticket to the $2 million Hong Kong Vase on Dec. 14.

Among the other notable starters is the two-time defending champion, Dr. Kashnikow. A gray gelding based in Maryland with Dr. John R.S. Fisher, Dr. Kashnikow won the 2001 River City by 1 1/2 lengths and the 2002 River City by a nose. He is winless in seven starts since his 2002 triumph.

Other contenders include Better Talk Now, winner of the Grade 2 Knickerbocker at Aqueduct two weeks ago, and Hard Buck, a Brazilian import who has finished first in both of his starts in the U.S. In all, 13 were entered, but only 12 can start.

The River City, which dates to 1978, is preceded by two allowance races as the ninth of 10 Sunday races. First post is 12:40 p.m.