12/19/2010 12:24AM

Catching up with The Tin Man


The genial bay gelding tosses his head when the groom unclasps the shank, then slowly wheels around and breaks into a measured jog along the fence line. In an adjacent paddock, a youngster posts a playful challenge. With that, the gelding pins his ears, drops his head and, with sycamore leaves rustling beneath his hooves, breaks into a careful gallop.

Slowed by the constraints of his right front leg, the 12-year-old poses no serious threat to the young lay-ups who come and go next door. But he doesn’t seem to mind.

“He’ll move up and down the paddock with them a little bit, but not as much as he’d probably like to,” farm manager Russell Drake chuckles. “Before his knee got hurt, he’d probably beat them to the corner.”

No doubt. After all, The Tin Man was winning at top levels just three years ago - believed to be just the third horse, other than steeplechasers, to have won a Grade I at age 9 (John Henry and John’s Call being the others).

The Tin Man didn’t race at 2, due to two bad tendons, and his past is strewn with injuries – tendons, body soreness, a wrenched ankle. The Affirmed gelding reached the races at 3 for Richard Mandella and the next year began winning stakes. By age 9, in 2007, the front-running turf specialist had won four Grade Is (the Arlington Million, Shoemaker Mile and two runnings of the Clement L. Hirsch) and four Grade IIs.

The Tin Man marched through 31 starts, posting 13 victories, 10 second- or third-place finishes, and earning more than $3.6 million. The sweet-faced gelding with the catchy name amassed quite a fan club.

And then it was over. When nuclear scans revealed a possible issue with one of his ankles in October 2007, exploratory surgery was performed. Although surgery went well – nothing was amiss - the horse fractured his right knee struggling to rise from anesthesia.

After convalescing for months in Mandella’s Santa Anita barn, in April 2008 the 10-year-old hobbled off a van at scenic River Edge Farm in Buellton, California. He’d been there before on lay-up, as his breeder/owners Ralph and Aury Todd are longtime clients at the farm. This time? “He is here to live the rest of his life relaxing and having a nice paddock and grass,” Russell says.

His recovery has been slow, and his enlarged right knee lacks flexibility. His right front hoof drags a bit, and he wears shoes on both front feet for protection. When he walks on pavement, the sound, with two shoes and two bare feet, one foot occasionally dragging, is distinctive.

“He certainly in the last year has gotten a lot more active, and I think he’s learned how to handle his knee better,” Russell says. “For a long time, you’d never ever catch him laying down. I think it hurt him, and he was a little bit afraid and maybe wasn’t sure quite what would happen if he did. He would never have dirt on him like he does now.”

The Tin Man, having grown bored of the horse in the adjacent field, has gingerly dropped down for a good roll – extending his right front leg first. His bath of the day before is soon but a memory, and he seems quite happy to be free of that annoyingly clean feeling.

He investigates us for treats and, although we don’t have any, he remains close by so that, every so often, he can double-check.

From far away he might be considered a “plain brown wrapper,” but up close he is very handsome. His face is strong yet refined, his eyes glow with curiosity, and he carries his head proudly – a classic look.

In The Tin Man’s two-acre paddock, an equine tetherball hangs for his amusement. He simply can’t ignore the purple Jolly Ball for long. He sidles up to it and casts it a glance before lunging at it with bared teeth. Then, having defeated it, he walks away.

Another ball, untethered and faded red, lies discarded in leaves just outside his paddock. A groom tosses it back in. The Tin Man grabs its handle in his teeth and vigorously shakes it up and down. He releases it, and the ball sails away.

“We’re gonna have to put up a basketball hoop for him,” Russell says, laughing, to the attentive grooms.

Enrique Gonzalez and Jesus Hernandez regularly bring their famous friend carrots and the occasional apple, and fans bring peppermints. In addition, The Tin Man has all the grass he can eat, a little grain and a figurative oilcan - an arthritic powder to help keep his joints limber.

He is not forgotten. He receives fan mail and e-mails, and visitors from around the country. A visitor’s log in the office, just for him, features his photo on the front. Inside are signatures and notes from visitors who make the trek to see  him from over the country, including Arizona, Illinois, New York, Connecticut, Oregon, California and Tennessee.

River Edge Farm’s roots were planted in 1975 with a dream – and plan - of Marty and Pam Wygod, and Russell Drake. Nowadays, the farm driveway is unusually picturesque with its broad, grey-barked European sycamore trees. Gold and green leaf-covered branches shroud the driveway in a postcard-perfect canopy.

“When I first planted them – it’s been 34, 35 years - I thought ‘I’ll never see the day that they’ll ever make shade,’” Russell recalls. “That’s how time passes. Seemed like it wasn’t very long before we were worried about raking up all of the leaves.”

As of this year, more than just leaves are being cleared out. The Wygods announced a decision to sell their California stock. Many sold through Barretts in October, others were shipped to Kentucky, and their stallions were relocated to other farms. While approximately 150 horses still reside here, including The Tin Man, the number pales in comparison to the glory days when, during breeding season, 350 – 400 horses grazed the fields.

“This has been his spot since he came off the track,” Russell says, “and we’re gonna keep him here as long as we can.”

He smiles as he watches The Tin Man jog around the paddock, the one leg not quite in synch with the others, and says: “He’s got a lot of heart, that old Tin Man.”