07/01/2009 11:00PM

Time to look back at a historic race

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Benoit & Associates
The Tin Man was a two-time winner of the American Handicap at Hollywood Park.

INGLEWOOD, Calif. - The long goodbye of Hollywood Park continues this weekend with two of its signature events - the American Handicap and the American Oaks - offered for what probably will be the last time. Maybe.

Horse racing is by its nature full of uncertainty, but who needs this? The Bay Meadows Land Co. refuses to provide a definitive date that its Hollywood Park development project will commence. If the economy improves, Hollywood is finished. Just to be on the safe side, it is best to assume that these will be the last of the Americans, and that is a shame, because they have provided some memorable history.

With its $700,000 purse and stout promotional budget, the American Oaks costs money to present, but the aesthetic rewards have been considerable. The list of winners includes American champion Wait a While, Japanese champion Cesario, the Irish star Dimitrova, and the the dramatic pair of Dublino and Megahertz, who finished one-two in the inaugural Oaks and then two-one after the stewards got through with them. Oaks No. 8 on Sunday promises to be a final flourish to a very good idea executed well.

By contrast, the American Handicap is a piece of the rock. It has been run for as long as there has been a Hollywood Park.

Ligaroti won the first running in 1938 for Bing Crosby and Lin Howard, then gave Seabiscuit all he could handle a month later in their match race at Del Mar. Citation was 6 and nearing the end of the line when he beat his Calumet stablemate Bewitch in the 1951 American.

Swaps carried 130 pounds to win the 1956 American, smacking Mister Gus, who later beat Nashua at level weights in the Woodward. The 6-year-old Native Diver whipped around the course in 1965 to win the American, but he could not cope with the younger Travel Orb, the pride of Washington, in 1966, nor Pretense, who carried 131 pounds, in 1967.

In 1968 the American went from dirt to the brand new Hollywood turf course. That was fine with the gray mare Pink Pigeon, who positively freaked to win by seven. Two years later, Figonero won the American Handicap, then, after an eight-day breather, won the Hollywood Gold Cup. Go ahead, try that today.

John Henry, already a legend, made a dramatic competitive comeback after a disastrous trip to Japan to win the 1983 American Handicap, but it figured. Both his grandfathers - Double Jay (1949) and Prince Blessed (1961) - won the American in their day.

The race has been offered at a 1 1/8 miles forever . . . except in 1986, when it was shortened to 1 1/16 miles for no good reason. Fine, said Bobby Frankel, I can handle that, and won it with the incendiary Al Mamoon.

Frankel will try for his fifth American with Storm Military, who was second in the 2008 running to Whatsthescript. This is the same Whatsthescript, owned by Tommy Town, who was arguably the best middle-distance male grass horse in California last year. John Sadler will send him in pursuit of second straight American on Saturday, something only one horse has been able to do. That was Bold Tropic, a cherry red South African of disturbing speed, who ran the 1980 and 1981 versions silly. Bill Shoemaker rated Bold Tropic on a light leash for Charlie Whittingham, who watched with delight as the others tried to go where his horse had already been.

The Tin Man won the race twice as well, but in the spirit of Grover Cleveland there was a passage of time between administrations. The Tin Man was a callow 4 in 2002 when he defeated Devine Wind and Kappa King. Tendons intervened, but he was back with a vengeance at the age of 8 in 2006 to defeat Hendrix and Fourty Niners Son. For good measure, The Tin Man finished second in 2007.

A flukish, post-operative knee injury prevented The Tin Man from trying for a third American title in 2008. These days he can be found in a field at Marty Wygod's River Edge Farm in Solvang, Calif., where farm manager Russell Drake keeps a watchful eye, Dr. Doug Herthel is on call from the nearby Alamo Pintado, and The Tin Man's owner, Ralph Todd, is a regular visitor.

"There's still a lot of calcification in that knee," Todd said. "We talked about doing something about the calcification, but Dr. Herthel said just leave it alone. His quality of life isn't affected. Sure, he favors the knee, but he does everything he wants to do, jogs around out there when he feels like it.

"You should have seen him the other day when his exercise rider, Crystal Brown, came to visit," Todd added. "He was nudging her around and they were playing. It was the damnedest display of affection from a horse I've ever seen."

The Tin Man is 11, and here's hoping he has many years of peaceful retirement to come. It did not figure he would outlast the American Handicap, but that looks like the way it will be.