Proud Truth was nicknamed "Mark Twain" by the people in his stable after a Washington writer predicted his "certain demise" in a race last spring.

Actually, Proud Truth did lose the race in question but, like Twain, reports of his demise were greatly exaggerated. He came to life in the fall, winning the Breeders' Cup Classic, finishing second in the balloting for the 3-year-old championship, winding up the year with earnings of $1.9 million. On Sunday at Santa Anita he begins an ambitious 4-year-old campaign that conceivably could make him the top money-winning thoroughbred in history.

We all should be so moribund.

Proud Truth's success and exciting prospects would have been hard to foresee a few months ago. The colt was overrated as a contender for the Kentucky Derby after beating some weak 3-year-olds in Florida last spring; he was soundly beaten in the Derby itself and then sidelined by a small fracture in his leg that might have jeopardized his whole career. What caused his transformation?

"During the course of the year, he did develop and mature a whole lot," said trainer John Veitch, "but what changed him overnight into a professional racehorse were blinkers. I guess I made a mistake not seeing earlier in the year than he needed them. But they made him concentrate instead of running spottily."

Proud Truth has won all four of his races since Veitch equipped him with blinkers, though three of those victories came against nondescript rivals. The Breeders' Cup was the race which certified him as a star.

Rallying from last place, Proud Truth swooped past the best horses in America and won in fast time. And yet that performance may not have been as good as it looked; Proud Truth had everything in his favor that day. He was facing a group of horses who had been battling each other through a series of hard races all fall. Because his injury had given him a forced vacation, he was fresh and his rivals were tired. Moreover, the Aqueduct racing strip on Breeders' Cup day was favoring horses with Proud Truth's style, ones who came from far behind and made wide moves around the turn.

Even with his big bankroll, Proud Truth has a lot to prove, and Veitch is going to give him every chance to prove it. He has mapped out a tough campaign for his colt that includes almost every major U.S. race for older horses, and he has started it in a tough way, by sending Proud Truth to Santa Anita.

Veitch could have kept Proud Truth in his winter headquarters, Florida, where he would have relatively easy pickings, but he came here for one reason: money. "California is so much more lucrative than Florida," Veitch siad. "In the three races that we're pointing for, we're looking at $1.8 million in purses -- $200,000 in the San Fernando, $600,000 in the Strub, $1 million in the Santa Anita Handicap."

None of these races will be easy for Proud Truth, not even Sunday's San Fernando, whose field includes none of California's established stars. Proud Truth's obstacle is the race track. The rock-hard racing strip here has traditionally favored horses with speed. Even if a horse is not a front-running type, he needs a measure of tactical speed. Grind-it-out types such as Proud Truth usually have very little success in the West.

"You hear a lot of horrible things about California tracks," Veitch said, "but Proud Truth has galloped well and he seems to like the surface."

Even so, this California venture is by far the toughest challenge he has faced. His demise in the West is by no means certain, but it is likely.