01/10/2004 1:00AM

Funny Cide rings in new year

Funny Cide, Jose Santos back aboard, makes short work of four foes in his first race this year. He will now be pointed to the Donn Handicap.

HALLANDLAE BEACH, Fla. - Kentucky Derby winner Funny Cide made a triumphant 2004 debut and notched his first victory since the Preakness Stakes when drawing off to an easy five-length victory over four overmatched rivals in Saturday's at Gulfstream Park.

Running for the first time since finishing ninth in the Breeders' Cup Classic, and with regular rider Jose Santos back in the saddle, Funny Cide set the pace in the seven-furlong optional claiming race, then exploded away from American Style and the rest when roused in early stretch. He ran the distance in 1:22.83 seconds over a fast track, while under mild urging nearing the wire.

Funny Cide, who is owned by the Sackatoga Stable, paid $2.80.

"That was perfect. Just what I wanted," a delighted Barclay Tagg said after the race. "He needed a confidence-builder like that, and I thought going seven furlongs the first time would be enough to get him fit without knocking him out too much."

Funny Cide, an Eclipse Award finalist in the 3-year-old division for 2003, had a roller-coaster campaign last year. After winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness he became the darling of both the media and racing fans nationwide, but had his bid for the Triple Crown foiled when finishing third over a sloppy track in the Belmont Stakes. He made only two starts after the Belmont, finishing a dull third in the Haskell and far back in the BC Classic.

Both the Haskell and BC Classic were run in stifling heat, and Tagg has said repeatedly he would never subject Funny Cide to those conditions again. The temperature was in the mid-60's at post time on Saturday.

Tagg said the Grade 1 Donn Handicap on Feb. 7 is a strong possibility for Funny Cide's next start, but that he is not under any pressure to make any specific race this year.

"I haven't ruled anything in or out yet this year," said Tagg. "The Donn is [about] 30 days away, and I'm not going to think of anything beyond that right now. If I don't think he's ready for the race then maybe we'll try the Donn next year."

Santos won both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness aboard Funny Cide but did not ride him in the Breeders' Cup. He was pleased with Saturday's performance.

"He was very strong today," said Santos. "He was doing it all himself. Inside the stretch I tapped him once but he didn't need it. He was so strong I needed the outrider to help me pull him up. You could see he's back on top of his game again."