09/01/2005 12:00AM

Track holding fund-raiser for injured rider


The typical conviviality at River Downs in Cincinnati over the Labor Day weekend will be even greater this year than usual. On Sunday, the entire day will be dedicated to Gary Birzer, the former jockey who suffered severe neck and spinal cord injuries on July 20, 2004, during a race at Mountaineer Race Track in West Virginia.

The focus will be on major fund-raising efforts to help offset the expenses that Birzer, 28, and his family have incurred during his lengthy recuperation period.

Surely the most poignant moment will come when Birzer makes a live appearance - on horseback. Although he is paralyzed from the waist down, his progress in rehabilitation at the Drake Center and the Winton Woods Riding Center has been so steady that he plans to ride a horse Sunday around the River Downs paddock. His mount will be equipped with a specially designed saddle.

River Downs officials have worked diligently on putting together the Birzer benefit. Foremost among the fund-raising events is a silent auction that offers a variety of racing-related items, including tickets and hotel accommodations to the 2006 Kentucky Derby and other valuable memorabilia and prizes. More information is available at riverdowns.com or by calling 513-354-8243.

Eight or nine to run in Cradle

The Birzer benefit comes a day before River's annual highlight, the $200,000 Cradle Stakes on Monday. A field of eight or nine 2-year-olds is likely for the Cradle, which frequently produces at least one genuine contender for the following year's Kentucky Derby campaign.

The likely favorites for the 1 1/16-mile Cradle are Dawn of War, Key West Breeze, Laity, and Rocket Beauty. All are based at Churchill Downs.

River Downs racing officials said trainer Bobby Barbara phoned this week from New York to inquire about supplementing Union Course to the race for $12,000, but by Thursday, Barbara had decided against it.

Last year, Bellamy Road, trained at the time by Michael Dickinson, won the Cradle very impressively in his second career start. Among other notable Cradle winners are Spend a Buck (1984), Peaks and Valleys (1994), Mighty (1999), and Harlan's Holiday (2001).

Turfway opener faces issues

Entries for Wednesday's opening night card at River's neighboring track, Turfway Park, will be drawn on Sunday. Officials at the Florence, Ky., track have been holding their breath, hoping that key disputes regarding the state's new equine medication policies would be resolved during a Thursday hearing in Franklin Circuit Court.

Some horsemen are saying they might not enter horses at Turfway because they are upset about the state's new policy. Basically, the trainers say want more detailed information on the testing.

Meanwhile, The Turfway opener is scheduled to be something of a landmark event, because it will be the first time in North America that horses will race over the revolutionary racing surface, Polytrack.

* The first stakes of the Turfway meet, the Sept. 10 Weekend Delight, drew 44 nominations, far surpassing the norm. Nominations to the meet highlight, the five-race Kentucky Cup series on Sept. 17, will close Wednesday.