05/07/2003 11:00PM

The Tin Man faces tough lot

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - An illness put The Tin Man on the shelf in late winter following his impressive win in the Grade 2 San Luis Obispo Handicap at Santa Anita. At the time, he was considered one of the top turf marathon horses in California, if not the best.

To retain that status, The Tin Man will need another outstanding performance in Saturday's $400,000 Jim Murray Memorial Handicap at Hollywood Park.

Run over 1 1/2 miles on turf, the Murray has had its conditions changed from a restricted race for up-and-coming stakes horses to an open race expected to reach graded status in coming seasons.

The race has certainly drawn a Grade 1 field. Aside from The Tin Man, the field includes four other Grade 1 or Group 1 winners - Ballingarry, Chiselling, Denon, and Storming Home. Three stakes winners are entered - Continental Red, Kim Loves Bucky, and Murano - as well as Night Life, a troubled fifth in the Arcadia Handicap last month.

The Tin Man is the 123-pound topweight, but it is the lack of a recent start that concerns trainer Richard Mandella.

"If I had my druthers, I wish this race was a mile and a quarter, but I've put some serious works into him," Mandella said. "I think he's as good as he can be. Anytime going 1 1/2 miles too fresh is a little worrying."

A likely favorite, The Tin Man has started twice this year, finishing second by a head to stablemate Johar in the San Marcos Stakes on Jan. 20 before drawing off to score by 9 1/2 lengths in the San Luis Obispo Handicap in February. He missed the rest of the Santa Anita meeting after an illness surfaced.

"He missed a week, which isn't much time, but then you have to come back slowly," Mandella said. "It was not a serious thing at all."

The Tin Man was fourth in the Breeders' Cup Turf last fall, ahead of Denon (fifth) and Ballingarry (seventh).

Storming Home, a 5-year-old, is another contender although he has not started since November.

Storming Home won the Group 1 Champion Stakes at Newmarket in Britain last October, beating Moon Ballad and Noverre. Moon Ballad won the Dubai World Cup earlier this year.

Storming Home followed that win with a 15th-place finish in the Japan Cup and then joined trainer Neil Drysdale.

The presence of such a deep field makes for an intriguing running of the Murray Handicap.