01/20/2006 12:00AM

Old-timer right back?

Benoit & Associates
San Luis Obispo star The Tin Man (above) faces defending champ Whilly in a large field in San Marcos.

ARCADIA, Calif. - If there was any question about The Tin Man's heart - at age 8, did he still have one? - doubt was removed when he returned from a yearlong layoff Dec. 28.

A long-distance specialist, The Tin Man was not expected to get up racing at only a mile. Besides, he had to be vulnerable returning from a sore ankle and a 14-month layoff. It was an eternity for an 8-year-old, but The Tin Man needed only 1:34.32 to prove he was back.

"He's a good horse, so for him to run that good was not a big surprise," trainer Richard Mandella said.

On Sunday at Santa Anita, will try to reproduce that comeback victory against 13 rivals in the Grade 2 San Marcos Stakes at 1 1/4 miles on turf. It might be The Tin Man's best distance.

To win the $150,000 San Marcos, The Tin Man must top a large field that does not include any superstars. The race attracted Grade 2 winners Always First, License to Run, and Whilly; Grade 3 winner Atlando; and allowance-caliber longshots Warrior Song and Estevan. Others include Rebel Rebel, Adreamisborn, Milk It Mick, Fitz Flag, and Sigfreto.

The pace will be set by Warrior Song, a 3-for-6 allowance winner running in his first graded stakes. "Numbers-wise, I think he fits with these horses," trainer Mike Machowsky said. "The Tin Man is obviously the horse to beat, but he ran hard the other day and is coming back kind of quick."

The Tin Man, whose eight wins and $1.1 million bankroll tops the field, is coming back in just 25 days. Handicappers expecting him to regress may need to reconsider.

"He's actually gained weight; he's bloomed out" since the race, Mandella said. Victor Espinoza rides The Tin Man, whose main rival, Whilly, will try to win the San Marcos for a second straight year.

led wire to wire last year in the San Marcos, but is equally effective as a presser. "We know he likes Santa Anita, and he loves the firm ground," trainer Doug O'Neill said.

Whilly entered the Grade 2 San Gabriel on Jan. 1, but scratched because rain softened the course, which was labeled "good."

With little fanfare, Whilly is closing in on $1 million in earnings. He has won 8 of 19 starts, and $887,482. "He's a real blue-collar hard knocker, and it helps having a rider like Felipe [Martinez], who's a blue-collar hard worker too," O'Neill said.

Whilly is racing for the first time since a runner-up finish Oct. 2 in the Grade 1 Clement L. Hirsch Handicap.

Trainer Bobby Frankel will start two - License to Run, who won the off-the-turf San Luis Obispo last year and is racing for the first time since July 2005; and Bouthan, who is making his U.S. debut and first start since July 2004.

"They probably both need a race, to be honest," Frankel said, "but there is no place else to run."

will be ridden by Patrick Valenzuela, which makes him the beneficiary of the hottest trainer-jockey combination in Southern California. Going into Friday, Frankel and Valenzuela had teamed to win 9 of 18 attempts together. License to Run has won 5 of 12 starts, and he has run well fresh in the past.

Bouthan colicked twice since arriving from France, which explains his 18-month layoff. He won 4 of 11 starts in Europe. The longer, the better for him. "A mile and a quarter is okay, but he could be a San Juan [Capistrano] horse," Frankel said, referring to the 1 3/4-mile Grade 2 race. Bouthan will add blinkers. "He trains better with them," Frankel said.

The San Marcos is the second of five Santa Anita graded stakes for long-distance turf horses. Badge of Silver won the Grade 2, 1 1/8-mile San Gabriel Handicap on Jan. 1, but is skipping the San Marcos. That leaves San Gabriel runner-up Atlando as the only San Marcos starter with recent graded-stakes form.

Atlando ran well in the San Gabriel, rallying from behind a slow pace on a rain-softened course. The 5-for-14 European has two wins and a third in his last three starts at 1 1/4 miles.