Investors of a certain, shall we say, vintage will recall the go-go late '90s, a period during which everyone and his uncle seemed to be a stock-market genius. Back then, picking winners was relatively easy: Throw dart, collect money.

OK, maybe it was a little more complicated than that. But not by much. Basically, you just needed to identify companies with nose-bleed price multiples, little in the way of actual earnings, and great "stories" about untapped potential for explosive growth. Then just dive on in. For a while there, the water really was fine.

And then ...
It all ended badly, of course. Just ask those unfortunate souls who might even have thought they were playing it safe by passing on individual stocks and investing instead in Cubes (NASDAQ:QQQQ), the exchange-traded fund (ETF) that tracks the growth-oriented Nasdaq 100.

Cubes recently counted the likes of Apple Computer (NASDAQ:AAPL), Google (NASDAQ:GOOG), and Starbucks (NASDAQ:SBUX) among its top-10 names, with eBay (NASDAQ:EBAY), Yahoo! (NASDAQ:YHOO), and Research In Motion (NASDAQ:RIMM) -- racy growth stocks all -- appearing just a little further down its list of holdings. Alas, spreading your bets via an index tracker didn't provide much protection when the market melted down: A $10,000 investment in Cubes made when the market opened for business on Jan. 3, 2000, had withered to roughly $2,571 by New Year's Eve 2002.

Celebrate good times, c'mon
Could be, though, that happy days are here again. The market has been on a fitful but ultimately upward trajectory of late, with the Dow surpassing the 12,000 mark and stocks striking a profile that, as I read it, seems far less speculative than it's been in a long time -- the late 1990s most definitely included.

As I recently wrote to members of the Fool's Champion Funds investment service, the rise seems powered, at least in part, by what we might call rational exuberance over the healthy pace of corporate earnings. Indeed, if anything, the market has a bit of catching up to do on that front, and savvy investors should be looking for smart ways to take advantage of the gap. Earnings growth, after all, ultimately powers a stock's price.

Get smart
How you take advantage, of course, is the crucial question, and on that front, I encourage you to give mutual funds a look. By focusing on fundamentals -- gauging criteria like expense ratios and a fund's past performance on its current manager's watch -- you can uncover the cream of the industry's crop and let those expert stock pickers help you take advantage of this rising market.

If you'd like some help doing just that, you might also take a look at our Champion Funds service. So far, we've narrowed a vast universe of thousands of funds down to some 45 recommendations, and not coincidentally, all but three have made money for shareholders since we gave 'em the nod. Taken collectively, our picks have surpassed the broader market by more than eight percentage points, too.

Those numbers certainly improve your dartboard odds, but needless to say, we don't throw darts. A fund, after all, can only ever be as strong as the stock picker who's calling the shots now. Click here to snag our cheat sheet.

Shannon Zimmerman runs point on the Fool's Champion Funds newsletter service, and at the time of publication didn't own any of the securities mentioned above. Starbucks, Yahoo!, and eBay are Stock Advisor recommendations. You can check out the Fool's strict disclosure policy by clicking right here.