01/27/2004 1:00AM

Funny Cide remains people's choice


Funny Cide was the most popular horse who raced in the United States in 2003, and he proved a popular winner at Monday night's Eclipse Awards dinner, garnering a huge cheer, particularly from the tables shared by his large ownership group, when he was announced by actor Joe Pesci as the champion 3-year-old male of last year.

The Eclipse Award capped a whirlwind year for the 10 men who make up the Sackatoga Stable partnership that owns . In addition to victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, the tension of a potential Triple Crown in the Belmont Stakes, and the attention of literally hundreds of news outlets who wanted to chronicle their storybook success, Sackatoga earlier Monday at a luncheon was presented with the Big Sport of Turfdom Award by the Turf Publicists of America.

"This has been such a ride for us," said Jack Knowlton, the managing partner of Sackatoga Stable.

Funny Cide, a gelding by Distorted Humor out of the Slewacide mare Belle's Good Cide, won just twice in eight starts last year, but the plebian origins of both himself and his owners made him an instant favorite.

He began the year by finishing fifth after a rough trip in the Holy Bull Stakes, then third in the Louisiana Derby. A close second-place finish to Empire Maker, the subsequent Derby favorite, in the Wood Memorial convinced his circumspect trainer, Barclay Tagg, to go to the Derby.

Funny Cide proved best in a thrilling stretch drive in the Derby, beating Empire Maker and Peace Rules. He became the first New York-bred to win the Derby, and the first gelding to win the race since Clyde Van Dusen in 1929.

One week later, Funny Cide's jockey, Jose Santos, found himself the subject of a Miami Herald story that insinuated he used an illegal electrical device in the Derby. The baseless story made national headlines. Santos was cleared in 48 hours by Churchill Downs's stewards, and attention toward Funny Cide grew further.

His victory in the Preakness put Funny Cide on the doorstep of the Triple Crown, and his popularity exploded exponentially. The Funny Cide crew launched several products, such as beer and candy. He also will be the subject of a book, due this April. At Monday night's dinner, the first person Knowlton mentioned by name was the book's author, yet he failed to acknowledge Santos, who was standing next to him with his son, Jose Jr.

A crowd of more than 100,000 turned out in a miserable, driving rainstorm to witness Funny Cide's attempt to sweep the Triple Crown in the Belmont, but Funny Cide could only finish third, five lengths behind Empire Maker and Ten Most Wanted.

Funny Cide only raced twice more last year. He was a dull third in the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth. Then, after a 2 1/2-month layoff, he ran in the Breeders' Cup Classic, in which he finished ninth, beating one horse.

Because he is a gelding, Funny Cide was not whisked off to stud, like Empire Maker. Instead, he is back racing this year. He won an allowance race at Gulfstream Park earlier this month, and is scheduled to make his next start in the Donn Handicap on Feb. 7.