10/01/2006 11:00PM

Capturing our attention again

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Whenever some wiseguy starts holding forth about how The Tin Man gets away with easy leads and soft paces, loping along in front with not a worry in the world and then sprinting home to get the money, Ralph Todd likes to hose them down with a line from Laz Barrera.

"Affirmed had just won a big race on the lead," Todd said Monday morning, still on a high after The Tin Man's win in the Clement L. Hirsch Memorial Turf Championship two days before. "Somebody was giving him a hard time about Affirmed getting things his own way. Laz let him finish, then he says, 'You know, I was watching your horse very closely, for more than a mile, and he never did go by Affirmed.' "

As the last racing legacy of Affirmed, The Tin Man continues to write history with every stride. Making his first appearance since winning the Arlington Million, The Tin Man earned his fourth victory of the year in the Hirsch (toss in a comeback win on Dec. 28, 2005, for good measure). His only loss has come at the hands of international superstar David Junior in the Dubai Duty Free.

If nothing else, The Tin Man's triumph at 1-2 was artistically apropos. In winning the Clement Hirsch, he was celebrating the fifth anniversary of his racing debut on Sept. 30, 2001. He won the race for the first time back in 2002, at the peppy age of 4, back when iPods were just starting to catch on and America was between preemptive wars. He even tidied up some personal business, since it was in the 2004 running of the Hirsch that he wrenched an ankle that kept him away from the races nearly 14 months.

At the end of the day, though, the 2006 version of the 1 1/4-mile Hirsch will be remembered primarily for The Tin Man's determination to hold off the stubborn T. H. Approval, and for the look on Ralph Todd's face as the two old pros hit the wire as a team.

"I've played enough sports to know - when you think you can't be beat, that's when they knock you off," said Todd, who is 73. "ESPN had been up to my house for an interview during the week. Two of my brothers and their wives came to the races. Some of my son's friends were there. When I left the paddock, my heart was going boom-boom-boom. I'm thinking, 'My God, what if we get beat today?' "

At the end, the finish came down to a diminishing head.

"Somebody who watched on TV told me today that I was really cool at the finish, when the horse won," Todd said. "Cool? We weren't even sure he'd won!"

The Tin Man is a product of more than 30 years in the business, back when Dancing Liz, the granddam of The Tin Man, carried the silks of Ralph and Aury Todd to victory in the Autumn Days Handicap during the Oak Tree meet. There have been other jewels in the family, as well, such as the hard-knocking mare Mama Simba and the classy sprinter Oraibi.

Except for Dancing Liz, who was trained by David Bernstein, Richard Mandella has handled the Todd runners. Ralph Todd long ago figured out that Mandella has a decidedly unhurried attitude toward the development of Thoroughbreds, and that the good ones are to be cherished.

"Dick's not one to tout these horses," Todd said of Mandella's initial evaluation of The Tin Man. "He told me early on, though, 'You know, this guy, he kind of acts a little classy.' "

This is a rave, coming from Mandella, and he was dead on the money. What else but class could carry a horse through a tendon-splitting procedure before he even started, through the chronic aches and pains of five seasons over California tracks, and finally back in action and better than ever after his most recent injury? The message is clear - every horse should skip his 7-year-old season.

This has been a bittersweet year of racing for Todd, whose greatest joy has been sharing The Tin Man's exploits with his family and close friends. Last March, as family members were preparing for the trip to Dubai, Todd's 47-year-old son Steven suffered a fatal heart attack.

"Steve loved the horses, and he was at Santa Anita in January when The Tin Man won the San Marcos, just before heading to Dubai," Todd said. "I was in Hong Kong at the time, so he calls and says, 'Dad, I'm afraid The Tin Man disappointed a lot of people today.' Oh really, I said. 'Yeah, mostly the ones he kicked the [you-know-what] out of!' That was my son."

The Tin Man took Ralph Todd to the top of the mountain at Arlington Park when he defeated Cacique, Ace, and English Channel in the Million. He says to expect anything more from the old boy would be not only unreasonable, but downright greedy. That's why Todd considers talk of a start in the Breeders' Cup Turf an almost ridiculous luxury.

"Besides, I told Richard I wasn't sure how much more I could handle of the emotion-meter," Todd said. "Richard said he understood, but that maybe we should test it."