02/07/2004 12:00AM

Medaglia d'Oro in a romp

Medaglia d'Oro, under Jerry Bailey, was able to overcome some early traffic trouble to post the fastest time in the Donn Handicap since 1997.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Medaglia d'Oro's quest for the Eclipse Award that has narrowly eluded him the past two seasons began in spectacular fashion on Saturday when he roared through the stretch to an easy 4 3/4-length victory over Seattle Fitz in the Grade 1, $500,000 at Gulfstream Park.

Funny Cide, who won an Eclipse Award as the nation's best 3-year-old in last season, finished a tiring third.

Medaglia d'Oro's victory did not come without some harrowing moments for both jockey Jerry Bailey and trainer Bobby Frankel. Bailey had to ease Medaglia d'Oro back after being put in tight quarters by jockey Eibar Coa and longshot Predawn Raid around the first turn of the 1 1/8-mile race.

Bailey quickly got Medaglia d'Oro back outside Predawn Raid to stalk the pacesetter down the backstretch. Medaglia d'Oro took command leaving the three-eighths pole, where he was quickly joined by Funny Cide and then Seattle Fitz, who rallied three wide. But neither proved any match for Medaglia d'Oro, who drew off readily once set down by Bailey upon settling into the stretch.

Seattle Fitz was easily second best, finishing 3 3/4 lengths in front of Funny Cide. Puzzlement was fourth followed by The Judge Sez Who, Country Be Gold, Predawn Raid, and Bowman's Band.

Bowman's Band was attempting to challenge along the inside midway on the second turn when he too was shut off by Predawn Raid and forced to steady sharply, losing all chance.

Medaglia d'Oro, a 5-year-old son of El Prado, paid $3.20. He covered the distance in 1:47.68, the fastest Donn since Formal Gold ran .28 of a second faster in 1997.

"I was a little concerned going into the first turn," said Frankel, who trains Medaglia d'Oro for owner Edmund Gann. "I never expected that other horse [Predawn Raid] to go out like he did and Coa squeezed me pretty good. My horse nicked his quarter a little but nothing serious. I was happy he had enough turning for home. Jerry said this was one of his strongest races . . . as good as the Strub last year."

Medaglia d'Oro was scheduled to fly back to California on Sunday. Frankel said if all went well he could make his next start in the Dubai World Cup on March 27.

"I really haven't figured it out yet," said Frankel. "I don't like to predict too far ahead in this business."

Barclay Tagg, who trains 2003 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Funny Cide, said only "we got beat by the two horses I thought we'd have to beat."

"At the half-mile pole I got to him [Medaglia d'Oro]," said Jose Santos, who rode Funny Cide. "By the quarter pole he was gone."