When Proud Truth won a minor race here last week, trainer John Veitch exclaimed, "This is just the beginning!"

Hard-headed handicappers thought Veitch might be suffering from delusions of grandeur, but after today's $159,380 Fountain of Youth Stakes, the trainer has a lot more credibility.

Proud Truth, the 9-to-5 favorite, came seven horses wide on the turn and rallied to win at Gulfstream Park with a stretch run that stamped him as one of the top candidates for the March 2 Florida Derby. And maybe the Kentucky Derby.

He scored by a neck over Stephan's Odyssey, who also rallied very wide to establish himself as a top member of this generation. But the Fountain of Youth presumably put to rest the Derby aspirations of the Maryland colt Mighty Appealing. He enjoyed absolutely perfect racing luck and still faded to finish eighth in the field of 13.

Today's race was set up for the kind of stretch charge that gives trainers visions of the Kentucky Derby but isn't really quite as impressive as it looks. A speedball named Artillerist set the pace, as expected, and he zipped the first quarter mile in 22 4/5 seconds and the half in 46 3/5. Mighty Appealing was sitting on the rail in perfect striking position, while Proud Truth and Stephan's Odyssey raced near the rear of the field.

As the field reached the final turn, Artillerist was weakening from his exertions. So was Mighty Appealing, and so was every other horse who had been near this hot pace. As the leaders collapsed, most of the stretch-runners swung to the outside. The one who didn't, the well-regarded Irish Sur, found himself blocked through half the stretch run and finished fifth.

Proud Truth and Stephan's Odyssey were seven- and eight-wide as they moved out for clear running room, and they came flying past their rivals, battling head-and-head to the wire. With a 10-pound weight concession -- he carried 112 pounds to his rival's 122 -- Proud Truth won the battle by a neck, covering the 1 1/16 miles in an unimpressive 1:43 3/5.

Do It Again Dan was another four lengths back in third place.

Veitch, whose horse won $106,860 today, was predictably exuberant, even more so than after the colt scored a six-length victory in an allowance race here last week.

"My horse is getting more and more professional, more experienced," Veitch said. "He was very strong at the end. He wasn't going to give it up today. The first thing I asked (jockey) Jorge (Velasquez) was, 'Was he going to get you?' He said, 'We could have gone around one more time. He wasn't going to beat us today.'

"We have an exciting Florida Derby ahead of us," Veitch predicted. "Maybe too exciting."