HALLANDALE, FLA., FEB. 15 -- If today's Fountain of Youth Stakes was a harbinger, the 1988 competition among Derby-age colts is going to be rousing. Forty Niner and Notebook battled head-and-head all the way around the track at Gulfstream Park, with Forty Niner winning by a fraction of an inch.

But the decision in the photo finish was inconsequential compared to what this race showed about the two colts. Both displayed new dimensions to their talent. Their speed and grittiness suggested that they are both worthy candidates for the spring classics.

The outcome of this 1 1/16-mile stakes was determined not in the exciting stretch drive, but in the run to the first turn. Forty Niner was breaking from post position No. 7, with one speed horse inside him and Notebook in the outside post, No. 9. Should Eddie Maple try to burst out of the gate and get to the rail ahead of his rivals?

"I talked it over with Woody {Stephens, the trainer} before the race," Maple said, "and we kind of had it in our minds. We weren't going to beat our brains in to take the lead, but we were going to get it if we could."

Forty Niner broke sharply and shot for the rail; the No. 8 horse Position Leader chased him, and Notebook was parked three-wide around the turn. The ground he lost there more than accounted for his losing margin at the wire.

Notebook moved abreast of Forty Niner as they moved on the backstretch, and they turned it into a two-horse race. They covered the first half mile in 46 3/5 seconds and the six furlongs in 1:10 3/5, Forty Niner keeping slightly in front.

As he turned into the stretch, Forty Niner led by a few inches, at most, but Notebook could never overtake him as they fought to the wire. The time was good, 1:43 1/5.

Buoy rallied to finish third, one length behind, though never a factor. Frosty the Snowman, third choice in the betting, suffered his first career defeat, with a big excuse. Another horse bumped him and knocked him into the rail, causing jockey Doug Valiente to lose his irons and bruise his foot.

Stephens was delighted with Forty Niner, because he hadn't been totally convinced about the colt's distance-running ability; his only previous race around two turns had been unimpressive. "I couldn't be more pleased," the Hall of Fame trainer said. "He was dead game. I found out he gets two turns all right."

Notebook proved a lot, too. Trainer Wayne Lukas' colt had run brilliantly fast as a 2-year-old, but in races for New York-breds where he had no competition and could cruise to runaway victories. He hadn't fully proved himself in high-class competition. Today he did.