02/05/2004 1:00AM

I'll cheer him - not bet him


NEW YORK - Whether you think Funny Cide is a heroic champion or a horrific underlay in Saturday's Donn Handicap, the fact that he'll be in the starting gate for a Grade 1 race as a 4-year-old is worth celebrating in itself.

America's last three dual-classic winners - Charismatic, Point Given, and War Emblem - were retired to stud before turning 4, obviously not an option for the gelded Funny Cide. You have to go back to Real Quiet in 1999 to find a winner of two Triple Crown races even racing as a 4-year-old. The last such horse to return and win a championship as an older horse was Alysheba in 1988.

Funny Cide's return is particularly intriguing because he has so much to prove. While his somewhat mythologized story has made him the darling of casual fans and the subject of an upcoming biography, the fact is that his two victories and six losses last year amounted to perhaps the weakest record of any modern 3-year-old champion.

For the 15 days encompassing the Derby and Preakness, he was perfect. For the rest of the year he was winless, and close only once, finishing a combined 32 1/2 lengths behind 11 different horses. It's still entirely unclear whether he'll be a factor at the top of the handicap division this year.

To their credit, his handlers are willing to find out sooner rather than later by taking on Medaglia d'Oro in the Donn instead of hiding in softer spots. Medaglia d'Oro should and will be favored Saturday despite making his first start since Oct. 25. He won last year's Strub off a similar layoff and the Whitney off a longer one. Every one of his races last year earned a higher Beyer Speed Figure than Funny Cide has ever run, with the exception of the latter's somewhat suspect Preakness over a wet track against a poor field.

The nine furlongs of the Donn also are Medaglia d'Oro's best distance. He has won five of his last nine starts overall, but during that span he is 1 for 5 at a mile and a quarter and longer but 4 for 4 at a mile and an eighth. It's unclear what Funny Cide's best distance is. He's won two classics, but there's a school of thought that he might end up proving most effective as a miler in races such as the Metropolitan or Cigar Mile.

From a gambling point of view, Funny Cide is likely to be severely overbet in the Donn, as he was in the Breeders' Cup Classic, where he was 8-1 when his true odds were probably closer to 30-1. Getting 8-5 on him to run down Medaglia d'Oro is no bargain, and he may not even be the second most likely winner of the race. If he engages Medaglia d'Oro early and the two of them are getting tired down the lane, Puzzlement will be flying late and might swoop past them both.

The board will be my guide. To my mind, Medaglia d'Oro is bettable at even money or better. At odds-on, an exacta box with Puzzlement may be the play.

As for Funny Cide, hats off if he beats me. We don't yet know how good he is and what he's best at, but at least we'll get to find out this year, more than can be said of so many other star 3-year-olds in the modern era.

Obsolete law; blind enforcement

Good and loyal customers who brave the elements and the Belt Parkway in wintertime and actually attend the races at Aqueduct should be eligible for an Eclipse Award of Merit, or at least a free hot dog. Instead, your tax dollars are being spent to deny them free clubhouse admission.

The spiteful and overzealous government agencies charged with "monitoring" the New York Racing Association are combing through the canon of racing regulations these days - not to clean up and modernize them but to make sure that the NYRA is in technical compliance with each and every one, no matter how obsolete or irrelevant. Last week they seized upon Racing Law 236, which prohibits granting free clubhouse admission to anyone but a narrow group that does not include customers.

For more than a decade, NYRA-One account-holders had received free clubhouse admission to the tracks if they maintained a minimum account balance. Starting last weekend, thanks to the government monitors, they no longer will.

"Our legal department has recommended the strictest possible interpretation of Racing Law 236 to demonstrate that we are in full compliance," said Bill Nader, a NYRA vice president.

Perhaps this incident will inspire NYRA to institute a long-overdue customer-rewards program. Another option would be to drop the price of clubhouse admission to a nickel, reducing overall revenue to the state but achieving the apparently more important goal of complying with the rules.