02/04/2004 1:00AM

Santos's fortunes come full circle

Jose Santos with son Jose Jr., after Funny Cide - whom Santos will ride in Saturday's Donn Handicap - was named champion 3-year-old.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - One month into the 2002 Gulfstream Park meeting, Jose Santos's career reached rock bottom. Long regarded as one of the top jockeys on the East Coast, Santos's business had plummeted so badly he was struggling to pick up live mounts in claiming races and surviving only because of the loyalty of trainer Christophe Clement, for whom Santos still rode first call.

Now, two years later, Santos's career has seen a complete turnaround. One month into the 2004 Gulfstream Park session, he is third in the rider standings, the leading stakes-winning jockey at the meet, and Saturday, he will take his regular seat aboard Eclipse Award winner Funny Cide in the Grade 1 Donn Handicap.

"It's been a long climb back, but right now I'm at the best moment of my career," Santos said. "I will be 43 years old this spring. But physically and mentally I feel like 25 and - the way things are going lately - I'm riding like I'm 18."

Teaming up with Funny Cide to win the 2003 Kentucky Derby and Preakness helped catapult Santos to the next level and also proved to be a life-changing experience for him and his family. But it was his decision to change agents and team up with Mike Sellito midway through the winter of 2002 that Santos says resurrected his career.

"My confidence was at an all-time low," said Santos. "I grew up in this business, and deep down I knew I could turn things around again. I just had to figure out how. Then I hired Mike."

Santos finished out his disastrous 2002 Gulfstream meet, while Sellito went on to New York to begin drumming up business.

"Mike told me that when I get to town there will be a big difference in my business," Santos said. "And he was right. I started riding for new clients as well as old ones I hadn't ridden for in 10 years. Instead of riding 30-1 shots, I was on 3-1 and 2-1 shots, and all of a sudden I was winning races and going to the track with a new attitude. And when you feel the fire like that it shows up in your riding."

Santos achieved one of the biggest milestones in his career later that year, when he and the 43-1 Volponi came out of nowhere to pull off one of racing's biggest upsets in the Breeders' Cup Classic.

"When we got to the top of the stretch and began to open up on the field in the Classic, the feeling was awesome," said Santos. "That victory opened up a lot of new doors for me. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and when people saw me winning the Classic, all of a sudden I started picking up clients I never would have gotten had I not won that race."

Little did he know the best was yet to come.

Several months earlier, Sellito asked Santos to come out one morning to work an unraced 2-year-old for trainer Barclay Tagg. Santos balked at first, but Sellito persisted and ultimately convinced Santos to make the time.

The horse turned out to be Funny Cide, and Santos realized immediately that Sellito had not steered him the wrong way.

"The first time I worked him, I could tell he was talented," said Santos. "By the third time, I told the owners this was my Kentucky Derby horse."

The rest is history, a chapter which included a baseless charge concerning his winning ride in the Kentucky Derby.

Funny Cide became a household name following his victories in the Derby and Preakness. So, too, did Santos and his family, most notably his 9-year-old son Jose Jr. and wife Rita, both of whom were constantly featured on televised coverage of all three Triple Crown races.

"I think it was great the way the media focused on my family like that," said Santos. "It's done a lot to change our lives. It's helped Jose in school, and people ask for him everywhere I go. I even got to throw out the first pitch at a Yankees-Red Sox game last summer at the Stadium. And recently Rita met fashion designer Coco Chanel, and now she's getting a whole new wardrobe."

Even Sports Illustrated took notice. Jose and Rita will appear together in Sports Illustrated's famous swimsuit issue, which hits newsstands next week.

"I think it's just awesome we got selected for something like that," said Santos. "We shot the photos last summer, and next week, we get to go up to New York for a special premier party for the swimsuit edition."

But before rubbing elbows with high society, Santos must first attend to business with Funny Cide in the Donn.

"I think Funny Cide is really going to step forward this year, and I look for him to run a big race Saturday," said Santos. "People love this horse, and I don't think he'll disappoint the people this season. Obviously, you have to be realistic and can't expect him to win all his races. But I expect him to keep his name high all year."