02/06/2002 1:00AM

Stephentown showing classic stuff

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - This is the time of the year when all your geese are swans was how Sir Victor Sassoon put it. He was talking about 3-year-olds as prospects for the spring classics, and some of his geese did indeed turn out the right way, winning the Epsom Derby twice.

Of all the 3-year-olds who have raced in Florida this winter, none has made more of an impression than Stephentown. A long bay colt by Forty Niner who carries the colors of Chicago's Peter Willmott called attention to himself on Jan. 9 with a resounding five-length victory in a nonwinners-of-two, earning the enthusiastic approval of his rider, Pat Day. The 1 1/16-mile allowance race produced no exceptional statistics, but Stephentown left an impression of class. He will be the center of attention in Gulfstream's $200,000 Fountain of Youth Stakes when he makes his next start on Feb. 16.

"I had planned to run him at Saratoga last summer," trainer Tony Reinstedler recalled, "and I thought he would benefit from a bit of experience. He made his debut at Ellis Park in July and came out of the race with sore shins. We addressed the problem, but it took time, and he didn't run again until late November at Churchill Downs, where he broke his maiden. He came back last month with a very nice race, but it's a big step up to the Fountain of Youth."

Reinstedler, who served under Shug McGaughey for seven years before forming his own stable in 1990, has confidence that Stephentown is the real deal.

"Ever since he came to me from Ocala last spring he stood out," the trainer said. "He has a certain presence you see in good horses."

Willmott purchased Stephentown at Keeneland in July of 2000 for $500,000. He is a former chief operating officer of Federal Express and also directed affairs at the giant Chicago retail operation Carson Pirie Scott. He has about 20 horses in training, including 10 2-year-olds in Ocala and two horses in France with John Hammond.

"My first horse was Wolf Ticket, trained by Pete Vestal," Willmott noted. "Dr. Gary Lavin's son, Kevin, attended Centre College in Danville, Ky. One of my daughters also attended Centre, and I knew Kevin. He came to Chicago one summer to work on an options exchange and I gave him $1,000. I told him that if he could make a profit with the money we would buy a horse. He did and we did."

Willmott also raced Williamstown, who set a Belmont Park record of 1:32.79 for a mile. His best horse, however, was Ide, a Forty Niner colt who won seven consecutive races as a classic prospect of 1996, including two stakes at Oaklawn Park, but was injured and never ran again. He is presently standing at stud for Willmott, who may have another stallion prospect in due course.

Whitney hailed by crowd

From William Collins Whitney in the 1880's to Harry Payne Whitney in the 1920's to Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, who participated for more than half a century, the Whitney family has given Thoroughbred racing extraordinary support. In appreciation of that support, and because of her own immense popularity with racing fans in the East, Marylou Whitney was deluged with applause here last weekend when announcer Vic Stauffer saluted her three winners on Saturday's card.

She is the leading owner at Gulfstream with seven winners, and has a trio of 3-year-olds with Nick Zito who could develop into top prospects. All three are winners here.

Straight Gin, by Zito's 1994 Kentucky Derby winner, Go for Gin, is one of the three. Another is Governor Hickel by Gulch, while the third is Inaugural Address by Victory Speech. Once again the name Whitney represents quality in racing.