04/11/2002 12:00AM

They love Harlan's Holiday

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A sense of pride and anticipation is being felt among the patrons of River Downs, the Cincinnati course that begins a 119-day meet on Saturday.

While the early part of the meet is traditionally quiet, in part because of the racing across the border in Kentucky, this year's Kentucky Derby has added significance for local fans, who watched one of their own progress from River Downs star to possible Kentucky Derby favorite.

Harlan's Holiday, the 2001 Ohio-bred horse of the year who captured the Hoover Stakes and Cradle Stakes at River Downs last summer, is seeking to become the first Ohio-bred to win the Derby since Wintergreen in 1909.

"There is a lot of anticipation about Harlan's Holiday," said track spokesman John Engelhardt. "We'll have something special in the works for Derby Day. Not only is his presence good for the Ohio program, but also good for the Cradle Stakes, which I think is the best ungraded race in the country."

River Downs management is also looking past the first Saturday in May, when, for the first time in several years, they will be running alone rather than in a 7 & 7 alternating race format with Thistledown, near Cleveland.

Thistledown officials chose to end participation in the format this year, a move that forced River Downs to independently market its own simulcast signal. But the market for the River Downs signal has been as good as last year, according to Sean Beirne, vice president of racing and simulcast operations.

River Downs will race in a 7 & 7 format with Beulah Park, until that track closes its season on May 4.

River Downs will race six days a week with Mondays dark, except holidays.

The traditional highlights of the meet are the $200,000 Cradle Stakes for 2-year-olds, and the $100,000 Bassinet Stakes for 2-year-old fillies, both scheduled for Labor Day weekend.

All other stakes on the schedule are restricted to Ohio-breds.