04/05/2005 11:00PM

A place touched by past and future stars

River Downs
A number of Hall of Fame horses and riders have competed at River Downs over the years.

Historians often refer to the 1920's as the Golden Age of sports, when such athletes as Babe Ruth, Red Grange, and Bill Tilden became household names. The legendary Man o' War and Exterminator were among Thoroughbred racing's superstars of that era, but more telling evidence of racing's growing popularity during the decade was a boom in racetrack construction.

The track known today as River Downs was a part of that great expansion. Financed at a cost of $1 million by a group of New York businessmen, what was then called Coney Island Race Course opened for business on July 6, 1925. Located on the banks of the Ohio River with the hills of northern Kentucky serving as a backdrop, it has been one of the country's most scenic racetracks since it opened.

It may surprise younger fans and visitors to know that, in its early years, River Downs had a racing product to match its surroundings, often attracting some of the sport's biggest stars. The 1926 Cincinnati Derby is remembered as a showdown between that year's Belmont Stakes winner, Crusader, and Preakness winner Display. Crusader's three-length win was accomplished in a record 2:02 for 1 1/4 miles, a track mark that still stands.

Other notables to win stakes at River in its first decade were Hall of Fame inductees Discovery, Myrtlewood, and Princess Doreen. Another future Hall of Famer, Seabiscuit, ran twice at River Downs in the fall of 1936, finishing third both times.

Financial troubles, combined with another racetrack construction boom, displaced River Downs on the list of elite racetracks in the late 1930's and 1940's. But even with a lower class of racing in the ensuing years, River Downs often kept up with emerging trends in the sport. Grass racing began at River in 1956, three decades before regional stalwarts Keeneland and Churchill Downs followed suit.

While no longer the site of meetings between classic winners, River Downs has instead become a proving ground for the stars of tomorrow. Its signature race for 2-year-olds, the Cradle, has been won by Spend a Buck, who became a Horse of the Year; Peaks and Valleys, a Canadian Horse of the Year; and Harlan's Holiday, who went on to be a multiple Grade 1 winner. The Cradle's sister race for fillies, the Bassinet, had its most prominent winner in 2000, when Caressing used it as a stepping-stone to victory in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies and the 2-year-old filly championship.

River Downs has also attracted some of the sport's greatest riders. Hall of Fame jockeys who won stakes at River include Earl Sande, Don Brumfield, Laffit Pincay Jr., Pat Day, and Kent Desormeaux. But the one rider local fans most fondly remember - the one they watched develop his talents on a day-to-day basis - was Steve Cauthen.

A native of nearby Walton, Ky., Cauthen rode his first career winner at River Downs aboard Red Pipe, a horse trained by his uncle, Tom Bischoff, on May 17, 1976. Cauthen was leading rider at River that year, and two years later would ride Affirmed to victory in the Triple Crown.

Cauthen's first win is the most indelible River Downs memory for Bischoff, whose family has owned or trained horses at the track since its founding. A trainer since he was 18, Bischoff, now 71, describes River Downs as a "neat place" and remembers when, like most racetracks, it attracted large weekend crowds.

"Smaller stables were a lot more common back then, too," added Bischoff. "There were more full-time trainers compared to today."

Thoroughbred racing has indeed changed a lot in the last 80 years. One constant has been the horses are still running at River Downs.