Native Diver wins the 1966 Hollywood Gold Cup. (Photo by HorsePhotos)
Nearly 50 years after he left this earth, Native Diver was still on the move and making big news earlier this year.
Following the closure of Hollywood Park in December 2013, the track was ticketed to be bulldozed. However, underneath the track's walking ring behind the grandstand were the remains of the legendary racehorse Native Diver. A California-bred with front-running flair — and the first three-time winner of the prestigious Hollywood Gold Cup — the coal black horse was brought to rest at Hollywood Park after dying suddenly from a bout of colic in 1967 at the age of eight.
Archaeology students from the University of Southern California first uncovered part of his ribcage last March. As the rest of the horse's skeleton was slowly revealed, the crew discovered something remarkable.
“His legs were out stretched, his front legs were running forward like this and his hind legs were sort of kicked behind him,” noted Thomas Garrison, an archeologist and professor at University of Southern California. “As he came uncovered, I said it still looks like he's running a race.”
Native Diver's remains were moved to Del Mar.
“He was the people's horse and that's why he got his own special burial at Hollywood Park,” said Garrison, who led the exhumation, in an interview with ABC. “There's a reason why this horse was chosen to be exhumed and reburied. He has that level of meaning in Southern California.”
In Hollywood Park's golden era of the 1960s, no one owned the track and wowed its fans like Native Diver. He was the first California-bred horse to win more than $1-million, a stunning amount in purse money back then. Often heralded as the West Coast’s Kelso, his three-peat in the Hollywood Gold Cup stood unmatched until 2007, when Lava Man duplicated the feat. Native Diver demonstrated his versatility in races ranging from 6 furlongs to 1 1/4 miles, capturing 34 stakes races.
A son of Imbros out of the Devil Diver mare Fleet Diver, Native Diver was owned by Mr. and Mrs. Lou K. Shapiro, who were more devoted to harness racing than to Thoroughbreds until Native Diver came along.
As a yearling on Shapiro's ranch at Canoga, Calif., he had such an awkward stride and so little coordination that he could hardly walk. He toppled over through sheer clumsiness. He fell down so often, he eventually injured his back. Fractious and headstrong, the colt was gelded and the picture began to change.
Shapiro owned Mar-Dor Co., one of the country's largest manufacturers of women's coats, and was also the co-founder of the Western Harness Racing Association. These achievements paled to being owner of Native Diver, born in 1959.
Trained by M. E. “Buster ” Millerick, rivals found it an imposing task to run with the free-wheeling gelding when Native Diver shot to the lead. The flashy black colt demolished his rivals in his first three starts, winning by a combined margin of 23 3/4 lengths, including his first stakes victory, the El Camino Handicap at Tanforan Racetrack.
As a 3-year old in 1962, Native Diver set the first of six career track records, flying home in the Bay Meadows Hillsdale Handicap in 1:08 2/5 for six furlongs. Native Diver was just getting started.
Known as the “California Comet,” “the Diver” or the “Black Beauty of California racing,” his appeal was similar to that of Zenyatta who captured the minds and hearts of race fans in recent years. Native Diver generated that sort of love and admiration from his fans. Racing journalist Martin Kivel waxed poetic in his description of the great horse in 1965:
“When Native Diver won the San Diego Handicap at Del Mar recently it was more than just a horse race. It was a performance by California’s most popular Thoroughbred that seemed, in a way, to have human qualities woven into its fabric. We sort of had the feeling that Native Diver was saying ‘thanks’ to the people who cheered him as he came on the racetrack and had put their money where their hearts were by betting him down to a prohibitive 1-to-5 favorite.”
Video courtesy of cf1970 YouTube channel
During the 1960s, Native Diver was the dominant Thoroughbred in California. Beginning with his 4-year-old season he won such prominent stakes races as the Golden Gate, Inglewood and San Diego Handicaps. He added victories in the Gilmore Handicap, another Inglewood Handicap and the Oakland Handicap as a 5-year-old in 1964.
His 6-year-old season is regarded as Native Diver's best. In addition to winning the Hollywood Gold Cup for the first time, he also scored in the Los Angeles, San Carlos, San Diego, American, Albany and Palos Verdes Handicaps. Native Diver won seven of 10 starts for $241,650 in 1965.
The Diver would capture the Hollywood Gold Cup for three consecutive years, running it faster each year. Run at 1 1/4 miles on one of the fastest dirt surfaces in the world, the Gold Cup was the richest race in the U.S. in the handicap division. Equally as important, the winner's name was mentioned with greats such as Seabiscuit, Challedon, Noor, Citation, Two Lea, Swaps, Round Table, Gallant Man and Hillsdale.
The first two editions found Native Diver an easy winner, capturing the 1965 running by five lengths and the 1966 renewal by 4 3/4 lengths. The following year there was plenty of excitement at Hollywood Park for the 51,664 racing fans who turned out. With Jerry Lambert in the irons, Native Diver shot right to the lead but he would have to contend with O'Hara, who unseated his rider at the start of the race. Native Diver opened up daylight around the first turn and repelled the challenge of Pretense heading into the far turn. Riderless O'Hara crossed the finish line in front but as he carried no weight Native Diver was declared a 5-length victor.
The horse had a fiery temperament to match his spirit on the track and was known to be a poor shipper.
“He was very explosive, and he had that type of personality to be around,” recalled Tom Shapiro, grandson of Louis K. Shapiro. “It was his way in the stall. He would stand in the corner and ignore you — he would do what he wanted to do.”
On Labor Day 1967, Native Diver went to post in the Del Mar Handicap eying his 34th stakes score. Carrying 130 pounds with jockey Jerry Lambert aboard, Native Diver dominated the field to come home five lengths on top, equaling the track record for 1 1/8 miles.
His $102,100 payday for the victory pushed his career earnings to $1,002,850, becoming the first Cal-bred millionaire and joining other greats as Kelso, $1,977,896; Round Table, $1,749,869; Buckpasser, $1,419,114; Nashua, $1,288,565; Carry Back, $1,241,165; and Citation, $1,085,760.
Eight days after winning the Del Mar Handicap, Native Diver was hit with a bout of colic at Bay Meadows Racetrack and was rushed to the equine hospital at the University of California - Davis. He died from a twisted intestine early the next morning.
Over Native Diver's seven-year career he started 81 times with 37 wins, seven seconds and 12 thirds. He was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 1978. Native Diver was a star, based where stars were made — California. Turf writer Kivel put it this way:
“There is something about Native Diver that seems to put electricity in the air every time he walks out on a racetrack. It’s hard to explain. Maybe it’s the way he holds his head, sort of high and mighty like. Or, perhaps it’s because he typifies the meaning of the word Thoroughbred – always running the best he knows how.”
Fun Facts about Native Diver