12/14/2004 1:00AM

Fragile, but a winner

Adam Coglianese/NYRA
Diligent Gambler gets his ninth victory of 2004, running for a $45,000 claiming price. Trainer Leah Gyarmati claimed him for $35,000.

OZONE PARK, N.Y. - One year ago, after the third race of Diligent Gambler's career, two veterinarians told trainer John DeStefano the horse would not make it back to the races. A third vet said that if Diligent Gambler were to race again, his career wouldn't last long.

Jockey Ariel Smith, who had ridden Diligent Gambler to a fourth-place finish in that Nov. 28, 2003, race, told DeStefano the horse was real sore and he would not want to ride him again.

One year later, Diligent Gambler has won more races (nine) than any 3-year-old in North America and could end 2004 as the winningest horse of any age.

nine victories put him in a four-way tie for the most wins in North America this year. He has a chance to break that tie Thursday when he runs for a claiming price of $50,000 in Aqueduct's sixth race.

"If there's a Hall of Fame for horses with courage and heart, he should head the list," said DeStefano, the first of three trainers to have had Diligent Gambler. "He'd come back so lame from the track he'd have to stay in the barn for a week. If every horse had his heart, boy, would this be a great game for owners and trainers."

But it is a chip in Diligent Gambler's left knee that gave DeStefano heartache. That same knee problem would also explain why he has been claimed only twice this year despite his stellar record of 9-2-2 from 14 starts.

The chip is in the middle of the joint, which makes it virtually inoperable if the horse is to keep racing. While the problem is unlikely to result in a fatal injury, the belief among many horsemen is Diligent Gambler's next race could be his last.

Thus far, however, the knee problem has not hindered his performance. Diligent Gambler has won over all four of the New York Racing Association's dirt tracks, from six furlongs to 1 1/8 miles. Diligent Gambler has won for as cheaply as $25,000 and for as much as $45,000.

Dominick Schettino claimed Diligent Gambler on Jan. 30 from DeStefano for $25,000 and ran him seven times - winning four. Most recently, trainer Leah Gyarmati and Castle Village Farm took him for $35,000. Diligent Gambler is 3 for 5 for his current connections.

Schettino said there were times when Diligent Gambler came out of his races really sore, and other times when he was sound. Between starts, Schettino said, Diligent Gambler would mostly jog unless he felt good enough to gallop.

Gyarmati has always liked Diligent Gambler, a gray son of Diligence whose coat still shows signs of an old skin disease. Gyarmati wanted to claim him back in January, but didn't have owners with the resources to do it. In August, Steve Zorn and Richard Munk of Castle Village Farm approached Gyarmati about claiming Diligent Gambler.

Gyarmati said she warned her owners:

"I said, 'I love that horse. I looked at him twice to claim him, but I'm going to tell you the rumor all over the place is he's got a knee.' They said, 'You know what, take him anyway.' They were game. They said, 'Everybody says he's got a knee, but he's still running like this?' You're always suspicious when you hear something, yet they keep coming back and winning, but you don't want to be the one holding the [bag] . . . like a hot potato, you know?"

Gyarmati claimed Diligent Gambler on Aug. 9, the day he won a $35,000 claiming race by two lengths at Saratoga. So what did Diligent Gambler look like the day she got him?

"Like he had a knee," Gyarmati said.

Gyarmati had to do some work on the horse, but when she ran him for $40,000 in the mud at Belmont on Sept. 18, he won by 2 1/2 lengths. On Oct. 3, he won for $45,000 before finishing fourth for $50,000 on Oct. 21.

On Nov. 11, Diligent Gambler finished second, beaten three-quarters of a length for $40,000. Jean-Luc Samyn became the eighth rider to climb on Diligent Gambler's back, and after the race, said Gyarmati, Samyn told her that if he had known the horse a little better, he might have won the race.

On Nov. 26, with Samyn again in the saddle, Diligent Gambler won for $45,000.

Thursday's race could be the last time Diligent Gambler will get to face horses his own age. Come Jan. 1, he will be 4 and must face older horses each time he runs.

"He's really an intelligent horse," Gyarmati said. "You can tell by the way he runs he protects himself. I'm waiting for him to say when he's had enough. I think the key is not to get him in spots when he's got to go past a certain point of exertion. . . . When you have to put too much pressure on him, then you have a problem."