When Forty Niner won the Breeders Futurity at Keeneland last week, his performance didn't dazzle anyone. His time was slow, and he had to struggle to beat a nondescript field by a nose.

Yet the victory virtually assured Forty Niner of the Eclipse Award as the champion 2-year-old colt. Las Vegas oddsmakers installed him as the future-book favorite for the 1988 Kentucky Derby.

As unimpressive as Forty Niner's record may be -- and his other victories this season have been uniformly slow -- there is nobody else in his generation who looks any better. The Grade I Remsen Stakes at Aqueduct, which is often a showcase for late-blooming 2-year-olds, attracted a miserable field yesterday, without a single entrant who looked like a bona fide stakes horse. The $500,000 Young America Stakes at the Meadowlands last week drew a dismal group, too. (The winner had lost his previous start to Forty Niner by 14 lengths.) And no exciting youngsters appear to be awaiting the Breeders' Cup later this month.

I would be inclined to dismiss this crop of 2-year-olds as a subpar bunch if I hadn't said the same thing in each of the last two years. When Capote was the champion colt of 1986, I suggested he might be the worst horse ever to win an Eclipse Award. And in 1985, when the mediocre Tasso was voted the champion of his generation, it was an indictment of the whole generation. There seems to be a trend here.

The opinion that America's 2-year-olds aren't as good as they used to be is not purely subjective nor is it based on any nostalgia for the good old days. Our best horses don't run as fast as they used to. Of course, it would be unfair to compare Forty Niner and his contemporaries to the extraordinary horses from the "decade of champions" -- Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed, et al. In 1979, though, the champion 2-year-old Rockhill Native was widely thought to be the best of a bad lot; in my system of speed handicapping, he earned a figure of 112. Last year, Polish Navy won the Champagne Stakes, the best 2-year-old race of the year, with a figure of 106. This year Forty Niner won the Champagne with a figure of 100.

The simplest explanation of this phenomenon might be that European buyers' domination of the American yearling sales has coincided with the decline of American horses' performance. "American-bred horses represent very close to 50 percent of the top horses in Europe," said Bill Oppenheim, editor of the newsletter Racing Update. "The Europeans aren't complaining about the quality of their 2-year-old crop this year."

Even if many good horses have been taken abroad, American racing in this decade hasn't been utterly devoid of brilliant performers. Several horses have run almost as fast as the acknowledged greats of the 1970s: Conquistador Cielo, Slew o' Gold, Bates Motel, Precisionist, Turkoman. Not one of them was a particularly brilliant 2-year-old. In most cases they didn't come to prominence until late in their 3-year-old campaigns.

Perhaps the changes in the U.S. racing schedule have prompted trainers to handle their best prospects differently. Now that an older horse can run for a $3 million purse in the Breeders' Cup, trainers might feel less inclined to rev them up at 2. And perhaps there has been a subtle change in the nature of the U.S. thoroughbred during recent years. The most influential sires of the 1970s -- Bold Ruler, Raise A Native and their sons -- tended to produce horses who were fast and precocious. They showed their talent early.

In the 1980s there hasn't been such a correlation between 2-year-old form and performance in the classics where horses are ultimately judged. Indeed, the most brilliant 2-year-olds of the 1980s (Devil's Bag, Ogygian, Cure The Blues) all were disappointments in the long run.

So the fact that Forty Niner and the rest of his contemporaries have looked so unimpressive doesn't necessarily mean that there aren't some talented horses hidden in this generation. But so far they are staying very well hidden.