02/14/2002 12:00AM

Fountain a proving ground

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - The known versus the unknown. That appears to be the story line in Saturday's $200,000 Fountain of Youth Stakes for 3-year-olds, a traditional stepping-stone to next month's Florida Derby.

The unknown is represented by Stephentown and Blue Burner, two talented colts who have run well at this meeting but have no stakes experience. Stephentown, who is 2 for 3 and probably should be undefeated, was particularly impressive when he won here last month at the Fountain of Youth distance of 1 1/16 miles. A Wild Again colt, and a $500,000 Keeneland yearling purchase, Stephentown has natural speed and favors a stalking position.

Blue Burner, by French Deputy, is undefeated in three starts. He has run his races from off the pace and is a strong finisher. He gained some fans when he ran here in early January by winning despite being bumped and steadied at the start.

The known quantity in the Fountain of Youth is represented by Booklet, who was notching his third consecutive stakes victory when he won the Holy Bull several weeks ago. A Notebook colt who has won 5 of 6 starts, Booklet was purchased privately on Jan. 1 by John Oxley, owner of last year's Kentucky Derby winner, Monarchos.

In the 45 days that he has had Booklet in his barn, trainer John Ward has become a fan.

"He is very professional about everything he does," Ward said. "Temperament never comes into play. I liked the way he won the Holy Bull and I thought he beat a good horse in Harlan's Holiday. He's trained very well since that race and I think he'll show improvement in the Fountain of Youth. He brings a good deal of experience to the table. I think it will take a horse with a lot of talent to beat him."

There are some who feel Booklet has distance limitations because of his pedigree. Trainer Ward disagrees, pointing out that his last three victories were all at a mile or more.

"He's never given any indication of wanting to stop," Ward said. "On the contrary, he seems to want to go on. As for winning the Holy Bull on the lead, he doesn't have to be in front, but he can make the pace if necessary and still finish well."

We agree with Ward that Booklet's experience should give him the edge, but this looks like an unusually competitive Fountain of Youth. The racing community awaits the outcome with considerable interest.

High expectations

A retired stockbroker from Long Island claimed his first racehorse for $50,000, and on Saturday, that horse, Eltawaasul, makes his Grade 1 debut in the $200,000 Gulfstream Park Breeders' Cup Handicap, the co-feature of an attractive program.

Christopher G. Connors got off to a dream start with his racing venture. A 6-year-old son of Nureyev, Eltawaasul won the Manila Stakes at The Meadowlands in his first start for Connors, a New Yorker. And he ran well in recent Grade 2 and 3 events to the point he is likely to attract support in Saturday's race, which is at 1 3/8 miles.

"I put myself on the spot," trainer Pat Reynolds said with a smile. "The man is going to expect a stakes winner with every claim. But being realistic, Eltawaasul has been a very nice horse for us and he is in good form. He has natural speed, has been racing on the lead in recent appearances. You stay out of trouble in front. It just depends on how much speed shows up."