The 8-year-old gelding The Tin Man showed plenty of heart in Sunday's San Marcos (gr. IIT) at Santa Anita Park, registering his first stakes victory in nearly three years.
The hard-plugging millionaire son of Affirmed, racing for the second time following an absence of 14 months for trainer Richard Mandella, overtook the pacesetter Whilly coming off the final turn under Victor Espinoza and held his 10 rivals at bay to win the 1 1/4-mile event by one length in an excellent time of 1:58 1/5, four ticks off the course record.
"How happy am I? Considering the terrible meet I'm having here, I'd let this horse sleep in my own bed if I had to," said Mandella, who came into the weekend with two wins in 27 starts at Santa Anita. "Any time you can get these old timers to come back like this, it's great."
The Tin Man loves the Santa Anita turf, winning for the eighth time in 13 tries over the course at perhaps his best distance, 10 furlongs.
"He's kind-hearted, and he does everything right," Mandella said.
The Irish-bred Whilly, looking for a San Marcos repeat under Felipe Martinez for Doug O'Neill, was nipped at the wire by a head for second by a flying Milk It Mick, a British-bred 5-year-old making his first start in the United States for James Cassidy. It was 2 1/4 lengths back to Atlando, the slight 3-1 favorite over The Tin Man who finished fourth.
The Tin Man ran second in the 2003 San Marcos, losing by a head to eventual Breeders' Cup Turf (gr. IT) winner Johar before winning the 1 1/2-mile San Luis Obispo (gr. IIT) by 9 1/2 lengths in February 2003. He ended the year with a fourth-place finish in the BC Turf, shying at the wire twice that day in the twilight at Santa Anita.
After a poor 2004 season with just a third-place finish to show in three starts, The Tin Man went to the sidelines with a bad ankle following a fourth-place finish in Oak Tree's Clement L. Hirsch (gr. IT). The ever patient Mandella kept The Tin Man out of action until Dec. 28, when the dark bay returned to win a one-mile classified allowance on the Santa Anita grass by a head over Captain Squire.
The San Juan Capistrano (gr. IIT) at the end of the meet would be next for The Tin Man, Mandella said. "That's kinda the short range plan ... We're gonna get to the Breeders' Cup this year and try not to mess it up."
Back on just 25 days of rest, The Tin Man was sharp from the start, breaking second on the outside of Whilly and tracking the multiple graded stakes winner through decent fractions of :23 2/5, :47 1/5 and 1:11 for the distance. Nearing the quarter-pole, Espinoza gave The Tin Man his head and he pulled to even terms with the leader on the outside as they completed the opening mile in 1:34 2/5. The two battled down the stretch as the The Tin Man began to inch away a furlong from home, and the old-timer finished with authority under left-handed urging.
"He just stalked the leader and kept running at the end," Espinoza said. "I didn't want to let Whilly get too far away from me because he's a tough horse. I just stayed right behind him until the three-eighths pole, then I tried to put some pressure on him. My horse is really nice to ride, and he knows what's going on so I don't have to do much."
Owned and bred by Ralph and Aury Todd, The Tin Man won for the ninth time in 23 starts and increased his earnings to $1,226,860. As the second choice, he paid $8.20, $4.80, and $3.60 and topped a $232.20 exacta.
Milk It Mick, a group I winner in Newmarket's Dewhurst Stakes as a 2-year-old in 2003, returned $21.20 and $11 with Kent Desormeaux aboard. Not only was it Milk It Mick's first start since he was transferred to the U.S. after a fifth-place finish at Doncaster in October, it was his first try at 10 furlongs. He overcame a poor start to finish well.
"We got a little too far back," Cassidy said of the runner-up. "He got trapped down there in the back and Kent knew they were getting away from him so he tried to get on him, but we came up a little bit short. But what a nice horse he is."
Whilly weakened late after drifting out in the stretch, paying $3.20 to show.
After Atlando, the order of finish: Fitz Flag, Rebel Rebel, Adreamisborn, Always First, License To Run, Estevan, and Bouthan.
Sigfreto, Toasted, and Warrior Song scratched.