11/09/2007 12:00AM

Abrupt end to Tin Man's epic career

EmailARCADIA, Calif. - The Tin Man stood at the webbing of the first stall outside the stable office of the Richard Mandella barn at Santa Anita, nibbling on a hanging rack of rich green alfalfa. There was an upturned bucket sitting a yard from the mouth of the stall to make sure shed row traffic steered clear. All four legs and both knees were bandaged. He was wearing a halter thickly padded in sheepskin and chained to a heavy-duty eyelet screwed into the exterior of the stall door frame, just above the hay rack.

This will be The Tin Man's life for the foreseeable future, at least until there is evidence that the fractures sustained by his right knee have begun to knit. That could be six weeks or more, after which he will get some gentle walking exercise around the barn. In the meantime, his keepers are watching him closely, worried that he could develop the intestinal problems of an idle horse, concerned that he might aggravate the fracture, and ever fearful of laminitis, should he begin to favor the injured leg.

In what can only be described as a head-shaking, post-surgical fluke, The Tin Man suddenly went from a viable racing prospect next year at the amazing age of 10 to a wounded warrior whose best hope for a happy retirement is to be characterized as pasture sound.

In consultation with his veterinarians, as well as owners Ralph and Aury Todd, Mandella okayed an exploratory procedure to clear up questions raised by nuclear imaging scans taken of The Tin Man's ankles following his second-place finish in the Clement L. Hirsch Turf Championship at Santa Anita, Oct. 6.

"We thought it might be torn cartilage," Mandella said. "I sure didn't want to go on with him if it was something that was going to keep him from performing at his level. It was a simple operation, and I thought it was the best way to tell us what we needed to know. Either he'd be able to come back as good as ever, or he'd be retired."

The surgery, performed on Oct. 25 by Dr. Joe Morgan at the Santa Anita backstretch clinic, revealed nothing seriously amiss with The Tin Man's ankles.

"There was nothing unusual about the recovery, either," said Dr. Jeff Blea, The Tin Man's regular vet. "He made three attempts to get up, and the third time he got up. The only thing a little unusual was that once he got up he was running around the recovery room, so they got him out of there, and he walked back to the barn."

Before long, though, swelling was noticed at the knee, obviously a result of his struggle to rise. Blea turned to a computer screen in the office of the backstretch clinic and displayed a radiograph revealing two fractured bones at the back of the knee. One of the bones was actually subluxated, or pushed outward, a result of violent ligament disruption.

"I found only 10 reported cases of fractured radial carpal bones," Blea said. "His were the intermediate and the ulnar. And of those 10 reported, all 10 have happened during recovery from anesthesia."

The Santa Anita clinic uses the traditional padded recovery room. It does not have the water recovery units that have aided so many horses in their emergence from anesthesia. Even if a water unit had been available, though, Blea noted that a simple diagnostic arthroscopy such as the one performed on The Tin Man was of such brief duration that a water unit recovery might not have been prescribed.

"Recovery is usually quick and not as disillusional as it is for longer, more complex surgeries," Blea said. "Still, there is always risk when a horse emerges from anesthesia."

It will be months before the people involved in The Tin Man's care will breathe easy.

For now, at least, the signs are good.

"He's standing square and upright," Blea said. "He can move back and forth, and he doesn't show any faulty conformation right now. I'm radiographing it every Monday to see if there's any deviation in the limb. The best thing going for us is that he's a very smart horse."

If there are no unanticipated complications, the knee can heal on its own and The Tin Man can enjoy a long life away from the racetrack, with only a little arthritis as a reminder. Still, it wasn't supposed to end this way.

In a perfect world, The Tin Man would have gone out with a hero's parade, prancing in public at least one more time for adoring fans. For six solid seasons, the elegant son of Affirmed was entertaining and inspiring by turns, taking major grass stakes at 4, 5, 8, and 9 while winning 13 of 31 starts and $3.6 million. On more than one occasion, Mandella brought The Tin Man back from soft-tissue injuries to pick up where he left off.

"There wasn't a year, wasn't a day that didn't go by that I didn't appreciate just how unique a horse he was," Mandella said. "Seven years he's been here - that's a big hunk of my life. And he'll be here for a while longer. But he's always had a great ability to heal. We can only hope that's still there."