For a handicapper, the 3-year-old campaign each year can be a great learning experience. Because we concentrate so intensely on a small number of races involving the Derby-age colts, the lessons from them are etched vividly in our minds. Sometimes a single race can expand our understanding of the whole sport.

The major stakes races for 3-year-olds this winter were not particularly inspiring, but they were enlightening. The performances of Proud Truth and Stephan's Odyssey, in particular, drove home to me some valuable lessons about the whole thoroughbred conditioning process.

When Proud Truth faced Stephan's Odyssey in the Florida Derby, having won their previous meeting by a neck in the Fountain of Youth Stakes, it was hard to find a soul who liked him the second time around.

Stephan's Odyssey had been making his first start of the winter in the Fountain of Youth, and almost everybody figured that he would improve with the benefit of this prep race. Second-race-after-a-layoff has always been a popular handicapping angle.

The belief in this theory was so strong that Stephan's Odysssey was an even-money favorite against the colt who had just beaten him.

I heard only one handicapper make a case for Proud Truth. My old mentor, Steve Davidowitz of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, argued that Stephan's Odyssey was more likely to regress than improve after his hard prep race. I didn't give his ideas much credence -- until Stephan's Odyssey ran a thoroughly dull race and finished fourth behind Proud Truth in the Florida Derby. Then I could only conclude that Davidowitz had been right and the whole key to the race had been physical conditioning.

When horses are put into prep races to get them ready for a major objective, the idea is usually to have a tuneup that will get them into shape, just as a fighter might have a bout with a pushover to get him ready for a championship match. He certainly won't step into the ring with someone who may knock his block off.

But that's what Stephan's Odyssey did. After his layoff from competition, trainer Woody Stephens put him into a tough spot -- a 1 1/16-mile stake against seasoned rivals -- that became even tougher as the race developed.

Stephan's Odyssey raced eight horses wide around the turn, just outside of Proud Truth. When they straightened out into the lane, they fought head and head all the way to the wire. Proud Truth had the seasoning to withstand such a battle, but the race probably depleted Stephan's Odyssey instead of strengthening him.

The implications are relevant at every level of the game. When a horse returns to competition after a long layoff, handicappers shouldn't assume that he'll automatically improve the second time out. If his first race was too taxing, if he was subjected to an early speed duel or a very hard stretch drive, he is apt to regress, the way Stephan's Odyssey did.

Proud Truth's success in the two big races at Gulfstream followed a loss against roughly the same group of horses in the Tropical Park Derby at Calder. That, too, demonstrated a great truth about thoroughbred conditioning.

There is a time-tested, orthodox pattern of development for a good young race horse. Ideally, he would begin in a six-furlong maiden race, go to a seven-furlong allowance race, then to a 1 1/16-mile allowance race, then to a 1 1/8-mile stake. The horse faces challenges that are progressively more difficult, but for which he has been fully prepared.

If, however, a trainer tries to take a shortcut, and asks his horse to skip one of these steps, the horse will lose -- no matter how good he is. Last year, the brilliant colt Star de Naskra won a maiden race and an allowance sprint, and then was thrust into a 1 1/16-mile stake against Swale. He wasn't ready for such a challenge and he was soundly beaten; he never really recovered until he went to Saratoga and won the Travers Stakes.

John Veitch tried to skip a step with Proud Truth. After the colt won two minor sprints, the trainer asked him simultaneously to go a distance for the first time and meet stakes company for the first time. He finished fourth without a real excuse. Two months later, he was able to beat the same rivals with authority, because he had the proper preparation.