05/17/2003 12:00AM

Victory sweet vindication for Santos


BALTIMORE - Monday, Jose Santos said his nightmare came to an end. Saturday, the 42-year-old Chilean jockey's dream continued.

After enduring the most difficult week of his 27-year riding career, Santos enjoyed the best one minute, 55.61 seconds of his life Saturday, as he guided Funny Cide to a scintillating 9 3/4-length victory in the 128th Preakness Stakes at Pimlico, putting him in position to become the 12th Triple Crown winner and first since Affirmed in 1978.

For Santos, the victory was extra gratifying. A week ago Saturday, he was facing implications that he carried an illegal device when he guided Funny Cide to victory in the May 3 Kentucky Derby. A photograph and accompanying story in the May 10 edition of The Miami Herald prompted an investigation by the Churchill Downs stewards.

Monday, the stewards cleared Santos. But for two days at Belmont Park, Santos faced hecklers who wondered where he carried his "machine,'' or battery, when he lost.

Tuesday, Santos said he felt he had to win the Preakness to remove any lingering doubt that may have existed in people's minds. As he crossed the finish line, Santos put his right hand to his lips, blew a kiss to the crowd, flashed the peace sign, and then opened his right hand to show it was empty.

"The only machine I was carrying with me is the red horse that was carrying me,'' said Santos, who won his first Preakness with just his third mount. "He showed to you today he can run like a nice machine. He was rolling at the end.''

Santos had called the investigation his worst nightmare. And the gamut of emotions he felt in the last two weeks put Santos on a roller-coaster ride.

"Derby Saturday was one of my happiest moments of my life, to win such a prestigious race like that,'' Santos said. "Then the bomb blew up . . . I don't think nobody can say anything bad about Jose Santos, about Funny Cide, or about Barclay Tagg.''

Tagg, the trainer of Funny Cide, made a point during the trophy presentation to praise Santos.

"He's a world-class rider, a world-class human being,'' Tagg said. "Those people and those photographers down there in Miami are nuts.''

While he bagged his first Preakness Stakes, Santos has won the Belmont before, winning the 1999 running with Lemon Drop Kid, who upended Charismatic's Triple Crown bid.

Santos said that Lemon Drop Kid doesn't compare to Funny Cide.

"This is the best horse I've ever ridden in my life,'' Santos said.