The 8-year-old veteran The Tin Man did just enough to win Saturday's $250,000 Clement L. Hirsch Memorial Turf Championship (gr. IT), a race he also won in 2002 on the lawn at Santa Anita Park.
Coming off a front-running one-length win in the Arlington Million (gr. IT), The Tin Man figured to have Saturday's short field in the Hirsch at his mercy. But after leading through soft fractions, the Affirmed gelding, sent off at odds of 1-2, had to dig in late under Victor Espinoza to register a head victory over the multiple grade II winner T.H. Approval.
"At the three-eighths pole, I decided to let him go a little bit," Espinoza said. "I know it ended up being pretty close, but he was kind of waiting for the other horses. For his age (eight), he's the best. He's a trier. Of all the horses I've ridden, nobody tries harder. This isn't just 'The Tin Man,' this is 'The Gold Man."
The final time was 2:00, three ticks slower than the 3-year-old filly Wait a While ran in romping to victory in the Yellow Ribbon (gr. IT) at the same 1 1/4-mile distance a race earlier. The Tin Man became the oldest to win the Clement Hirsch. John Henry won the race at 7 when it was the Oak Tree Invitational in 1982.
The reinvigorated The Tin Man recorded his fourth victory in five starts this year and his third in a row since finishing second in the $5 million Dubai Duty Free (UAE-I) at Nad Al Sheba in March. Besides the Arlington Million, the Richard Mandella-trained dark bay won the American Derby (gr. IIT) at Hollywood Park and the San Marcos (gr. IIT) at Santa Anita this year.
Mandella said afterward that The Tin Man would point to the John Deere Breeders' Cup Turf (gr. IT) Nov. 4 at Churchill Downs.
"T.H. Approval ran a helluva race," Mandella said. "He's a very good horse, and he gave me a pretty good scare, but The Tin Man did his job. That's all we ask. As long as he comes out good and continues as well as he's been, we'll just keep going (to the Breeders' Cup)."
The Tin Man has won nine of 14 lifetime starts on the Santa Anita lawn and is four of seven at the 10-furlong distance. Overall, he boasts a record of 12-5-2 in 27 starts with earnings of $3,126,850 for owner/breeders Ralph and Aury Todd.
The old-timer fell out of the gate to take the six-horse field along comfortably through fractions of :25, :49 4/5 and 1:13 3/5. As the pace picked up, The Tin Man edged away a bit to lead by almost two lengths. But T.H. Approval, usually far back in the first part of his races, turned up the pressure for Alex Solis. Artiste Royale, running third for Patrick Valenzuela, went with the other challenger as well. T.H. Approval gradually closed through the lane, but The Tin Man responded under urging and worked just hard enough to maintain his advantage all the way to the wire. The Irish-bred Artiste Royal held third.
Eduardo Inda, trainer of T.H. Approval, was happy with the outcome.
"This was a good race for the Breeders' Cup (Turf). It will set him up perfect," he said.
Solis said there was no option but to run with the winner.
"There wasn't any other speed in the race except for The Tin Man, so I thought I'd just try to make the best of it," Solis said. "I laid right off The Tin Man and went after him at the half-mile pole.
"My horse was out of his element. He's a mile-and-a-half horse, a mile-and-three-eighths. It was incredible what he did under these circumstances. I even thought I might have a chance at the sixteenth pole. The other horse looked like he was easing up a bit, but we just couldn't quite get there. These two, each one of them is a helluva horse."
The Tin Man paid $3, $2.10, and $2.10. T.H. Approval returned $2.40 and $2.10. Artiste Royal was $2.10 to show.
Fantastic Spain finished fourth, followed by Quinquin the King and Sharp Writer.