08/08/2007 12:00AM

The Tin Man not ready to end career

Four-Footed Fotos
The Tin Man arrives at Arlington Park on Tuesday, accompanied by groom Felipe Mendoza.

ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - The Tin Man story sports a great narrative line. Seriously injured at 2, eased back to health by a wily veteran trainer. Top-class winner of four Grade 1 grass races, a victory in the 2006 Arlington Million at age 8. One problem here - The Tin Man doesn't seem capable of acting out that final shot where he rides off into the sunset.

Instead of exiting stage left, The Tin Man flew to O'Hare Airport from Los Angeles on Tuesday to try to do something no other horse has accomplished: win back-to-back Millions. Only one horse has ever won the Million twice, that being John Henry, who won the inaugural Million in 1981, finished second by a neck in 1983, and came back to win his second Million in 1984. John Henry was 9 at the time - the same age as our hero, The Tin Man.

"At age 9, believe it or not, John Henry was just as good then as he ever was," said Ron McAnally, who guided John Henry through his glory days.

That same belief was put forth this week by trainer Richard Mandella, and a glance at The Tin Man's 2007 season does nothing to contradict him. Freshened over the winter after getting body-sore last fall, The Tin Man returned to action May 28, running what probably was his best-ever one-mile race while winning the Grade 1 Shoemaker.

Last out, in the June 30 American Invitational Handicap, he finished second by a head to the up-and-coming Brazilian colt Out of Control, a tough loss for which there were explanations. First, Out of Control carried 10 fewer pounds, and Mandella said a key workout leading into the race had gotten botched.

"There was a loose horse on the track, and he didn't get much out of a work that he really needed," Mandella said.

That raises an interesting question: How many breezes has The Tin Man logged since he made the racetrack? His first works date to late summer 2000, when The Tin Man was a 2-year-old, but things quickly went sour.

"He was just a work or two away from being ready to run, and he came back with both tendons swollen," Mandella said. "A tear in one, and the other one didn't look good. Any tendon problem, you know, it can be the end."

Ralph Todd, co-owner and breeder of The Tin Man with Aury Todd, had heard similar news in the past.

"You know, if you own enough horses, you start to get a little bit like, 'Oh lord, another horse with another problem,' " Ralph Todd said. "I learned a long time ago, there's no point in trying to change what has happened. You've got to deal with what comes up, and do what's right for the horse."

And what The Tin Man's connections did with him at age 2 laid the foundation for what he's been able to do at 8 and 9, when most racehorses have gone well past their prime. First, there was surgery to help repair the injury, plus plenty of rest. Second, Mandella recommended that Todd have The Tin Man, a son of Affirmed, gelded, not an easy call for an owner with a decently bred animal.

"I thought it might be a good idea to geld him for two reasons," Mandella said. "First, it keeps them from developing that heavy chest, heavy neck, and that's 60 or 75 pounds of weight up front that you keep off. The second part was that he might behave himself better and have less chance to injure himself than a colt would."

It would be nearly a year before The Tin Man would make the races, and early on, it wasn't clear that he would fully recover.

"The first six months of bringing him back, it was a little touch and go whether it would hold," Mandella said. "But each year, [the tendons] get a little better. Maybe by the time he's 10, they'll be completely healed."

That last remark came from Mandella's ample store of wit, a character trait eclipsed, however, by patience and determination. It is no accident that Mandella has regularly campaigned high-class older horses, horses like Sandpit, who finished second in the 1997 Million at age 8. Mandella, on the other hand, believes horses like The Tin Man and John Henry have unusual regenerative powers.

"I think he has an amazing capacity to heal," Mandella said. "You need to get blood to an injury, and a great circulatory system, that tends to go with good horses."

The Tin Man also badly wrenched an ankle two years ago, but since that injury he has won 6 of 8 starts, with two second-place finishes.

"He did a lot of soft-tissue damage, and we thought, well, he's getting a little old, it might not heal from this," Mandella said. "But sure enough, it was able to hold."

The Tin Man won his first Grade 1 in 2002, capturing the Clement Hirsch, a race he won again in 2006. He was fourth in the 2003 Breeders' Cup Turf, and second in the 2006 Dubai Duty Free, and Mandella speaks freely of campaigning The Tin Man as an 11-year-old. Why not? Sometime, though, the end will have to come.

"It won't go on forever, we know that," Mandella said.

The Tin Man, however, has a heart of gold - "He's as sweet as can be," according to Mandella - and could easily have a second career as a riding horse or a stable pony. But after racing for the better part of a decade, the horse himself will be allowed to plot out his sequel.

"Whatever makes him happy, that's what he's going to do next," Todd said.