05/13/2003 12:00AM

Santos sees win as a cure

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ELMONT, N.Y. - Even though he was exonerated from any wrongdoing in the Kentucky Derby, jockey Jose Santos believes he needs to win Saturday's Preakness Stakes aboard Funny Cide to remove any lingering doubts.

A photograph published in several newspapers that showed a dark area in Santos's hand crossing the finish line, and an article in Saturday's Miami Herald insinuated that Santos might have possessed something other than his whip in the Derby. But an investigation by the Churchill Downs stewards backed Santos's claim that he did nothing wrong.

"I feel like I have to win this race," Santos said. "All the bad [publicity] I had in Florida, I have to win it to show the public that everything I did was fair and square."

Santos, along with his wife, Rita, was at Belmont Park Tuesday morning, where Funny Cide put in his final workout prior to Saturday's Preakness.

Santos and his family endured a difficult 60 hours from the time they learned of the Herald article Saturday morning until 2 p.m. Monday when the stewards announced their findings.

Santos rode at Belmont Saturday and Sunday and said he heard catcalls from the fans when he lost. Santos won Saturday's Nassau County Handicap and won two more races Sunday.

"I rode two favorites and none of the two won and they yelled, 'You don't win no more because they took your machine away,' " Santos said. "My reputation started getting ruined, and I have a good reputation."

Rita Santos and the couple's four kids arrived in New York Friday night from Florida. At dinner, Jose made Rita aware of the conversation he had had with a Herald reporter, and the Santoses as well as Rita's brother, jockey Heberto Castillo, and trainer Leah Gyarmati - with whom the Santoses dined - laughed it off.

Rita said her husband appeared to handle everything well Saturday, but she grew increasing concerned.

"By Sunday, I saw that expression on his face, those lines that appear on top of his forehead when he's concerned about things," she said. "I don't think he ever felt that this wasn't going to be taken care of quickly, but by Sunday he was angry that it hadn't been cleared."

Rita felt that a photograph aired Sunday by TVG was evidence enough that her husband had done nothing wrong. But she worried when the Churchill stewards did not want the photo e-mailed to them. "All of a sudden to me it was like, 'What was this really about? Is it about Jose? Is it about the horse? Why wouldn't they want to see this picture?' " she said. "They said they had plenty of images."

Rita did not accompany her husband to Louisville to meet with the stewards. The plan was for him to join the other connections of Funny Cide in Albany where they were being feted by the state legislature. But the stewards decided not to announce their findings until 2 p.m., and Karen Murphy, Santos's attorney, felt it best to have him present. Rita, who had been informed by her husband in the morning that everything was all right, had to bite her lip when she was interviewed by an Albany station during its noon newscast.

"It was very hard to keep my mouth shut," she said.

On Tuesday, trainer Bobby Frankel said he believed the publicity could be good for racing because more people would tune in to watch Saturday's Preakness.

Rita Santos doesn't see it that way.

"He's always going to be known as that guy who was accused of cheating, basically," she said. "I can't see how this is good for racing in any way."