HALLANDALE, FLA. -- Forty Niner had a brilliant-looking set of credentials when he was named the country's champion 2-year-old of 1987.

He won five of his six starts during the year. He won on fast and sloppy tracks; he won sprinting and going a distance. He won the Champagne Stakes -- the most definitive barometer of future greatness for a thoroughbred -- in a runaway. He trounced Success Express, the eventual winner of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, in their only meeting. He was installed as the future-book favorite to win the Kentucky Derby.

In the view of his critics, Forty Niner lacks only one thing: genuine talent. He is the equine equivalent of those humans who come from a good family, go to all the right schools and get a title on their door, but who can't alter the fact that they are dullards to the core.

Such criticism of the 2-year-old champion may sound like a familiar refrain -- and it is. Two years ago most students of speed figures were convinced that Tasso was essentially a mediocre racehorse, and they were right; the colt never amounted to anything. Last year speed handicappers -- and, indeed, knowledgeable handicappers of all persuasions -- thought that Capote was a bum, and Wayne Lukas' colt spent the season confirming the lowest estimates of his ability.

Forty Niner's speed figures as a 2-year-old were as weak as those of Tasso and Capote. How did he win so many important stakes so easily?

It may sound implausible, but whenever Forty Niner ran in a big race, his opponents gave their worst efforts. Forty Niner beat Success Express on a sloppy track at Saratoga that the latter colt couldn't handle. He whipped Tejano when that talented colt gave an unaccountable poor peformance in the Champagne; Forty Niner's winning time was a mediocre 1:36 4/5 for a mile.

The evidence of the figures is undeniable. Forty Niner's hopes for success as a 3-year-old rest less on his achievements of last year than on the skill of his Hall of Fame trainer, Woody Stephens.

I have made the mistake before of dismissing Stephens' horses prematurely because they didn't run fast early in their careers. (Swale and Conquistador Cielo were among them.) Stephens is such a great trainer that if a horse has merely acceptable raw material he will develop every bit of that potential over the long run. But he may have his work cut out for him with Forty Niner. Even the trainer seemed to harbor a few doubts as he prepared the colt for his first distance race as a 3-year-old, the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park Monday.

Stephens was a bit surprised and disappointed when Forty Niner lost his 3-year-old debut in the Hutcheson Stakes here two weeks ago, though he said, "I thought the circumstances got him beat." The colt was chasing a hot pace and was parked wide on the turn; he was also making his first start since October. Nevertheless, Forty Niner lost to an unheralded ex-claimer, Perfect Spy, at a distance -- seven furlongs -- that should have been ideal for the champion. Forty Niner was not finishing strongly, raising doubts about his ultimate distance-going potential.

"With this breeding," Stephens said, "most everybody does {have those doubts}."

Forty Niner is a son of Mr. Prospector, one of America's great stallions, but one whose offspring tend to have more speed than stamina. There is something in the Mr. Prospector gene that makes horses less effective when they attempt to go beyond 1 1/8 miles. Stephens hopes that Forty Niner will be an exception, as Conquistador Cielo was.

Even with the Kentucky Derby 11 weeks away, the 1 1/16th-mile Fountain of Youth is a critical test.

Forty Niner's competition in the Fountain of Youth is semirespectable, but hardly overpowering. His main rival is the Wayne Lukas-trained colt, Notebook, who showed flashes of genuine brilliance as a 2-year-old and finished a half-length behind Forty Niner in the Hutcheson. Frosty The Snowman has scored authoritative wire-to-wire victories in all three of his career starts.

If Forty Niner wins Monday, it won't prove that he is a world-beater, but at least he will be progressing on the road to the Kentucky Derby that Stephens has mapped out for him. If he loses, though, his name may be added to a list -- along with Tasso and Capote -- of discredited 2-year-old champions.