06/06/2004 11:00PM

Learning to play hurt

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CHICAGO - It seemed half the country watched Smarty Jones try to gut out one final furlong in the Belmont Stakes. Typically, such battles are fought before far fewer eyes. How hard will a horse try to win? How far will he push himself? Answers are as likely to come before a thousand people on a midweek, Midwest card as they are with 120,000 screaming on Belmont Day.

Gumbo Love went down with an injury early last summer, and when she came back this year, she had changed. "Last year, we were strangling her to make her slow down," said Gumbo Love's trainer, Clayton Pierce. "This year, you've got to make her run."

Pierce is not pulling punches.

"She's got a lack of what you call heart," he said. "In this game, you've got to play hurt, run with the aches and pains."

Gumbo Love, a stakes horse last year, showed signs of improvement in her last start, running second to a nice filly named Defuhr. Wednesday at Arlington, she starts again in a second-level Illinois-bred allowance at one mile. The race shares top billing with an open entry-level allowance, also at one mile. In the open allowance is a 4-year-old colt named Flip, who began piling up injuries at 2, and who went out of action for a year after getting hurt in April of 2003. In his comeback race here May 16, Flip won by almost seven lengths, running a mile in a fast 1:36.80.

"He never misses a day of training," said Flip's trainer, Greg Geier. "Even down in New Orleans this winter, when he had a quarter crack, he never missed a day. He just trained right through it. It's rare you get the horses that will run through pain."

Pierce traces the changes in Gumbo Love directly to her injury last summer, when she chipped an ankle June 21 in the Purple Violet Stakes.

"She's been a little tentative since she came back," Pierce said.

Gumbo Love, a stakes winner at age 2, showed little spark in her first two post-injury races, finishing fifth and fourth during the Hawthorne meet. Her race here May 21 was a return to form.

Gumbo Love will have to run at least as well to win Wednesday. Natural Image, another talented horse, hasn't raced for almost a year, but makes her comeback Wednesday. Also in against Gumbo Love is the unbeaten Ms. Lydonia, who has won at six furlongs and nine furlongs in her first two races.

Flip appears to have landed in an excellent spot to continue his development. "Hopefully he'll pass the next step. I think he can," said Geier.

If not, he will at least go down trying.

Bare Necessities has hot work

Bare Necessities ships to Churchill Downs on Wednesday to run Saturday in the $400,000 Fleur de Lis Handicap, and she leaves on the heels of a powerful workout.

Monday at Arlington, Bare Necessities breezed six furlongs in 1:12.60, as fast as lower-level horses were running in races last week. There were only two other six-furlong works here Monday, but the next fastest was 12 lengths slower.

"It was a good breeze, not a hard work at all," said Frank Kirby, who started training Bare Necessities last month. Until then, Bare Necessities was stabled in Southern California with Wally Dollase.

Bare Necessities ships by van in midweek so she can get a feel for the Churchill track surface and school in the paddock there. Also shipping Wednesday is Mystery Giver, who runs Saturday in the $100,000 Opening Verse.

Another emerging talent

Caiman beat just one horse Saturday in the Belmont Stakes, but he returned safe and sound to Arlington early Monday morning.

"We took our shot," said trainer Angel Medina. "This is a free country."

While Caiman was getting ready to face the best 3-year-olds in training late Saturday afternoon, a 3-year-old named Up Anchor won an overnight turf handicap in his first start since January. Up Anchor, trained by Paul McGee, beat a modest group of horses at a mile on yielding turf, but ran well and should improve through the summer. He and Caiman could meet July 3 in the Arlington Classic, the first leg of Arlington's series of grass stakes for 3-year-olds.

"That's the way we're thinking after the way he ran," McGee said.