Imagine a marathon in which almost all the runners break their legs. That's the lackluster sprint for supremacy among large-cap growth funds.

The past few years have been tumultuous, to say the least. Tech stocks thundered north in 1998, 1999 and early 2000, only to plunge spectacularly over the past 18 months. Tech-heavy growth funds sparkled in tech's heyday, while choosier, tech-light funds have glimmered since.

The trick for the investor is to find a fund that can top its peers in both environments. That's no small feat, as the Big Screen discovered in beating the bushes for some all-weather names.

We sifted the big-cap growth bin for funds that have topped the category average in each of the past four years. Of some 220 large-cap growth funds launched before 1997, just five made the cut. You might wonder why we looked at these funds' year-by-year returns rather than just sifting for the funds with the best five-year annualized returns. Fact is, these funds would be on that list, too, but so would others that got most of their gains in 1999, only to fall hard since then. If you're looking for a fund that will be consistently solid, this is one way to find it. Let's check out the funds we dug up.

Three of these funds have had the same manager since 1997, including the chart-topping

(SHRAX) - Get Report

Smith Barney Aggressive Growth fund, where Ritchie Freeman has called the shots since 1983.

You might not know Freeman's name, but you should because he's quietly built a stunning record with this broker-sold fund. He typically buys small- and mid-cap companies growing their earnings at a 20% annual clip, hanging on to his favorites for years as they graduate into large-caps. Sounds pretty vanilla, but the results are tough to match.

The fund beats the

S&P 500

and at least 96% of its peers over the past one, three, five and 10 years, according to Chicago fund tracker Morningstar. The fund's 17.5% annualized gain over the past 10 years beats the S&P 500 by nearly 5 percentage points. The fund is down 16.3% so far this year, but its peer-beating streak isn't in danger. That loss is significant, but 96% of the big-cap growth funds out there have fared worse.

While David Corkins, manager of the no-load

(JAGIX) - Get Report

Janus Growth & Income fund, and Robert Streed, manager of the no-load

(NOEQX)

Northern Select Equity fund, might not be graybeards like Freeman, they've shown a similar flair.

Rise and Fall
Considering which growth funds deserve your money

Source: Morningstar. Returns through Oct. 16.

Corkins took over the Growth & Income fund when Tom Marsico left Janus back in 1997, and he has topped his average competitor every year since. You might be surprised to see a Janus fund on this list, because many have ridden big tech bets to fat losses, but Corkins follows a more price-conscious style, keeping 10% to 15% of the fund in bonds to churn out income and smooth out returns.

He still managed to ring up a 51% gain in a frothy 1999, while losing just 11% last year, compared with a nearly 15% tumble for his average competitor. Since Jan. 1, the fund is down 18.7%; 88% of its peers have fallen harder.

Streed has run the Northern Select Equity fund since its 1994 inception, focusing on stocks of companies with above-average earnings expansion for which he also sees a catalyst for growth, like a new product or distribution channel. Streed has beaten the category average for six straight years, but the streak is in danger. Since Jan. 1, the fund is down about 32%, which trails 64% of its peers. Still, Streed's record is enviable.

The other two funds on our list have solid records, but each is run by a manager who took over in 1999.

Ashi Parikh has run the broker-sold

(HGEAX)

Heritage Growth Equity fund since April 1999, with a bent toward tech and health care stocks like Smith Barney's Freeman. Unlike Freeman, however, Parikh has a quick trading style evidenced by the fund's 392% turnover rate -- meaning that the entire portfolio has turned over almost four times in the past 12 months. That hair-trigger style might be a bit aggressive, but the fund outdid its peers in 1999 with a 66% gain and suffered less last year, with a 12% fall. So far this year the fund has lost about a quarter of its value, but 70% of its peers have fared worse.

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The Big Screen: Growth Funds You Can Trust

S. Irfan Ali has focused on stocks of companies with consistent revenue and earnings growth since taking over the

(MFSGX)

MFS Strategic Growth fund in February 1999. That can lead to pricey shares, and the fund's 33% fall since Jan. 1 does lag behind the category average. That said, its 3.5% annualized gain over the past three years beats the S&P 500 and its average competitor.

If there's any common theme running through these funds, it's that each made bets on sectors but kept them within reason. Some traded stocks often while others held on to shares for years, but each balanced out big tech exposure with bets in more defensive areas like health care, underscoring the importance of a diversified approach.

Two of our favorite growth funds barely missed the cut but follow a similarly thoughtful approach: the broker-sold

(AGTHX) - Get Report

Growth Fund of America, run by a team of managers at American Funds, and the no-load

(HACAX) - Get Report

Harbor Capital Appreciation fund, run by grizzled growth vet Sig Segalas. Each of these funds typically trounces its peers in up and down years, but barely trailed the category average in one of the past four years. That said, they deserve at least an honorable mention.

The bottom line is that if you're wondering what growth funds you can trust after the past year's drubbing, this list is a good place to start. And if you're wondering why there aren't more funds on this list, well, so are we.

Ian McDonald writes daily for TheStreet.com. In keeping with TSC's editorial policy, he doesn't own or short individual stocks. He also doesn't invest in hedge funds or other private investment partnerships. He invites you to send your feedback to

imcdonald@thestreet.com, but he cannot give specific financial advice.