05/24/2007 11:00PM

The Tin Man proves to be an iron horse

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Consorting with animals half his age, The Tin Man returns to high-stakes competition on Monday at Hollywood Park in the $300,000 Shoemaker Mile.

This should be good news to anyone who thinks of age as a barrier, beyond the ability to legally drink or drive. The Tin Man has now made more comebacks than Sinatra. In a world of shifting alliances and disposable culture, he offers horse racing a familiar face. A gift that keeps on giving.

Richard Mandella, the trainer responsible for recycling The Tin Man year after year, is not making any promises. After all, the horse is 9, which would qualify him for old fogey discounts if he were the least bit human. He hasn't raced since last September, when he went to the sidelines on a winning note after the Hirsch Memorial during Oak Tree. And he'll be facing a gate full of hotshots on Monday, including Kip Deville, a winner of three straight stakes at a mile, and Chinese Dragon, winner of the recent San Francisco Mile.

Punks. On the day Chinese Dragon was foaled, The Tin Man was making his stakes debut in the 2002 running of that same San Francisco Mile, finishing third to the statuesque Suances and losing by just a length. As for Kip Deville, when he hit the ground in May of 2003, The Tin Man was a grizzled 5 with trophies from the American Handicap and the Hirsch Memorial and fresh from winning the San Luis Obispo.

Last year, The Tin Man struck gold at the age of 8, winning the Arlington Million in a world-class field in Chicago. He ended the season as one of the three Eclipse Award finalists for male turf horse.

When Mandella shut him down last fall, there was nothing seriously wrong with The Tin Man. He was just, in the trainer's words, "stove up." If it works out, owners Ralph and Aury Todd can credit early intervention as the key to this particular rejuvenation.

"He's come back as good as I've ever seen," Mandella said. "Whether he wants to run as bad at 9 and 10 as he did at 8, we'll find out on Monday."

The old boys can fool you sometimes. Up at the crack of dawn, nickering at the fillies and harassing the young colts, they might train like the second coming of Discovery. But then, in the afternoon, the spark fizzles and they run as if they would rather be anywhere else on Earth.

Richard Migliore, who rides Kilroe Mile and Maker's Mark winner Kip Deville in the Shoemaker, knows the breed. He was a significant part of the Fourstardave phenomenon through the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the New York superstar became a legend at Saratoga, winning a race there in each of eight straight seasons for trainer Leo O'Brien. Migliore rode Fourstardave 25 times, including the last 20 starts of his 99-race career.

"He never lost his enthusiasm," Migliore said before Friday's card at Hollywood. "He lost a step that last season, but he never got sour or moody, and he had the desire. A lot of that was because Leo did a lot to keep it fun for him. He would school him over fences, or let him hack up and down the hills, and through the woods at Saratoga. There were a couple of mornings he'd just tell me to get lost, go ride him anywhere you want."

Fourstardave was retired at 10 when he could no longer find the winner's circle, but as a 9-year-old he was good enough to lose the Poker Handicap in a photo and finish third to champions Lure and Paradise Creek in the Bernard Baruch.

With only 27 starts spread over the past six seasons, it is apparent The Tin Man has not enjoyed the same soundness as Fourstardave. Still, Mandella is not surprised that The Tin Man has been able to reproduce his benchmark form, year after year. The mere passage of time is not the most dangerous enemy of the Thoroughbred racehorse.

"It depends on how many injuries haunt them," Mandella said. "If the infirmities they acquire as they go along end up a detriment, they're going to lose desire, as well as the ability to perform. But as long as those injuries don't gang up on them, there's no reason they can't keep going as older horses."

All racehorses get hurt. It comes with the job. It is the nature of those injuries that determines career longevity.

"Joint injuries get more arthritic over time, and they become a problem for an older horse," Mandella noted. "On the other hand, The Tin Man has had some ligament issues, bowed tendons, ligaments strained around his ankles. But we nursed him, he healed, and they don't have the same detrimental effect.

"And one thing they always have is class, and the ability to run," Mandella added. "Those are irreplaceable. In fact, some of them do even better as they get older. They don't fret over things. They're a pleasure to be around. And with a horse like him, that's what we've got."