HALLANDALE, FLA. -- On the surface, at least, one of the most impressive performances by any American 3-year-old came in a minor stakes at a relatively minor track in northern California.

A colt named Ruhlmann routed his foes in the El Camino Real Derby by six lengths, even though his jockey had him under stout restraint most of the way. The time was sensational. Ruhlmann missed the world record for 1 1/16 miles by one second.

What did it mean? How good is Ruhlmann? The answer to that question may hold the key to the outcome of Saturday's Florida Derby. And the Florida Derby -- with a lineup that includes top colts like Forty Niner, Notebook and Cherokee Colony -- may hold the key to the whole Triple Crown series.

The margin and ease of Ruhlmann's victory easily might have been deceptive. Horses always look good when they trounce weak opposition -- and the 3-year-old competition in northern California always is pretty weak.

Moreover, the Bay Meadows track can produce freakily fast times: the world record for 1 1/16 miles was set there, and the time for the El Camino Real didn't make sense. If Ruhlmann ran the race of his life, so did several of the horses behind him.

I had concluded that Ruhlmann was a phony until I looked at what the other horses in the El Camino Real field had done in their subsequent races.

Havanaffair, who finished six lengths behind Ruhlmann, went to Santa Anita for a stakes and lost by less than two lengths to Lively One, Charlie Whittingham's colt who may be the best 3-year-old in southern California.

Seeker's Journey, who finished 14 lengths behind Ruhlmann, shipped to Oaklawn Park, where he won two allowance races easily and is considered a contender for the rich Arkansas Derby.

Greager, who finished 19 lengths behind Ruhlmann, made his next start in a minor handicap at Golden Gate Fields and won it by nine lengths.

The field in that stakes at Bay Meadows turned out to be a very good one, and the winner's performance was not merely legitimate; it was phenomenal. Ruhlmann is good enough to compete against the star 3-year-olds in the Florida Derby; he may even be good enough to devastate them.

The transformation of this colt -- who previously had been an undistinguished performer on two continents -- might confuse some handicappers, but it didn't surprise trainer Bobby Frankel. He had been expecting it, or at least hoping for it.

After buying the colt for owner Jerome Moss, Frankel sent him to France. He thought that the son of the stallion Mr. Leader would like the turf and furthermore, he said, "Young horses have a much better chance {to develop} in Europe than they do in this country, especially California, because of the different style of training."

Frankel started to get glowing reports about the 2-year-old. Ruhlmann was said to be the most talented youngster in the big stable of Andre Fabre, one of France's major trainers. But Ruhlmann lost all three of his starts in France. He was immature and so unruly that Fabre wanted to geld him. Frankel suggested instead that they give the colt a chance to run on the dirt in the United States, and so Ruhlmann came back home in the fall.

Ruhlmann displayed the same kind of brilliance in his training as he had in California. "He was so phenomenal," Frankel said, "that I was even thinking of running him in the Breeders' Cup as a maiden." But when he raced here, Ruhlmann was a disappointment again. He won one of his first three starts, but Frankel said, "He wasn't even trying. He was horrible."

Frankel decided to make some changes when he entered Ruhlmann in the Bay Meadows stakes. He equipped him with blinkers, and he summoned champion jockey Pat Day to ride him. And Ruhlmann looked like the consummate pro. He sat in third place behind two speed horses, went by them effortlessly and drew away powerfully in the stretch even while Day was applying a virtual hammerlock.

"I think the blinkers helped," Frankel said. "He'd been shying away from a lot of things before. And I think that he's a horse who wants to be ridden nice and easy." But mostly, Frankel theorized, Ruhlmann was simply maturing. He is still a youngster -- having been a May foal -- and he is just learning what the game is all about.

Ruhlmann has continued to look brilliant in the mornings as he prepares for the Florida Derby. When he worked six furlongs in 1:12 2/5, the rider dismounted and told Frankel: "He was awesome." When he went five furlongs in :58 flat on Tuesday, the rider said, "He went even better."

Ruhlmann still has to prove that he isn't a morning glory, a horse who does his best running when it doesn't count. He began to shed that reputation when he won his last race, and if he can duplicate that performance on Saturday, American racing may have a brand new star.