“Bring on Kelso.”
Thus opened an account by Martin Kivel in the Aug. 8, 1965, edition of the Independent Star-News. The phrase was “the cry of the huge Saturday throng as Native Diver crossed the finish line in the San Diego Handicap,” and it represented the deep respect that California racing fans had for their California-bred sensation. After all, Kelso was a legend in his own time; a five-time Horse of the Year that had just won the Whitney Stakes at Saratoga for the third time.
Then again, their belief that Native Diver was capable of defeating even Kelso was not without its reasoning. Native Diver’s victory in the San Diego marked his fourth consecutive victory and his 23rd stakes win. Even more impressive, it marked the third straight year that Native Diver had won the San Diego Handicap, one of the highlights of the Del Mar meet each summer.
Of course, when Native Diver’s streak got started in 1963, his reputation had not yet been established. He was merely a talented, very fast 4-year-old that had won a few good stakes races, mainly against his own age group.
But the San Diego Handicap marked a turning point in Native Diver’s career. For the first time, he was able to carry his immense speed beyond a mile in a race against older horses, and he did so impressively. After sprinting to the lead and running three-quarters of a mile in a rapid 1:09 2/5, Native Diver pulled away turning for home and cruised to an easy 1 ½-length victory.
Native Diver “scorched the Del Mar strip as he flew home … in a 1:40 3/5 effort for the mile-and-a-sixteenth,” wrote Ernie Mason in the Independent Press-Telegram. “The time was the fastest in the United States this year and just three-fifths off the track record.”
Fast forward another year, and Native Diver was an experienced 5-year-old that routinely won major California stakes races going a mile or longer. Following a solid third-place finish in the 1 ¼-mile Hollywood Gold Cup, Native Diver arrived at Del Mar as the heavy favorite to win his second straight San Diego Handicap. Appreciating the cutback in distance, Native Diver flashed even more speed than usual under jockey Jerry Lambert (posting fractions of :44 3/5 and 1:09 flat) before dominating the race by four lengths. Viking Spirit briefly challenged on the first turn, “but the issue was never in doubt following this brief encounter,” wrote The San Bernardino County Sun of Aug. 9, 1964, “as Lambert gave Native Diver his head when straightened away on the backstretch and the black horse skipped effortlessly away from Viking Spirit, never to be threatened.”
This tour-de-force performance kicked off a five-race win streak for Native Diver, and following a couple of defeats in 1965, he rebounded with a world record performance in the Los Angeles Handicap, where he ran seven-eighths of a mile in 1:20 flat. Two starts later he cruised to a gate-to-wire win in the Hollywood Gold Cup, and that stunning five-length score earned him a hefty weight assignment of 131 pounds for the 1965 San Diego Handicap.
They say that weight can stop a freight train, but it couldn’t stop Native Diver. Although Jerry Lambert told the Independent Star-News that Native Diver “wasn’t quite as nimble,” the 6-year-old gelding nevertheless prevailed by a decisive 3 ½ lengths while stopping the clock in 1:40 flat, a new track record.
Although his impressive performance and the subsequent cheers of “Bring on Kelso” inspired owner L. K. Shapiro to ponder a possible match race with Kelso, the two legends would never face off. Kelso, at 8 years old, was nearing the end of his career, and Native Diver went to the sidelines following a sixth-place finish in the Washington Park Handicap one month after his San Diego score.
But Native Diver’s career was far from over. He would race on for two more years, winning two more Hollywood Gold Cups and nine other stakes races to become the first California-bred racehorse to earn more than a million dollars.
Even still, his three straight wins in the San Diego Handicap—all achieved in carbon-copy gate-to-wire fashion—stand out among his most eye-catching achievements.