Throughout the long history of horse racing in the United States, California has produced an abundance of locally bred stars.
Swaps was a record-breaking superstar in the early days of television. Best Pal won more than $5.6 million back in the 1990s. The gritty gelding Lava Man nabbed all of the Golden State’s richest prizes during the 2000s. Fan favorite California Chrome won the Kentucky Derby and two Horse of the Year titles between 2014 and 2016.
But some folks might argue there’s never been a greater California-bred than the brilliant Native Diver, a front-running speedster who plied his trade during the 1960s. Yes, he lost more often than he won. True, he essentially never ran outside of California. But take one glance at Native Diver’s past performances and you’ll understand why he’s still revered to this day as one of California’s greatest homegrown stars.
Bred and raced by Mr. and Mrs. Louis K. Shapiro, Native Diver exhibited two primary strong suits during his decorated career – abundant speed and incredible durability. Between his debut in 1961 and his final race in 1967, when he was 8 years old, Native Diver race 81 times and compiled 37 victories. Excluding his brief juvenile season, Native Diver averaged more than a dozen races per year and won virtually every major stakes race in California, many of them multiple times.
Speed? Native Diver had plenty to spare. Over the course of his career he broke or equaled seven track records, most notably clocking seven-eighths of a mile in 1:20 flat (then a world record) while winning the 1965 Los Angeles Handicap.
Stamina? Native Diver had all he needed. In addition to his sprinting speed, Native Diver was blessed with the endurance of a high-class router. How else do you explain his three consecutive victories in the 1 ¼-mile Hollywood Gold Cup, each one achieved by a minimum of 4 ¾ lengths?
When Native Diver won Hollywood Park’s signature race for the third time in 1967, it was as much a testament to his durability as his talent. The brown gelding, so dark in color as to appear black, led all the way to win by five lengths in the brilliant time of 1:58 4/5. Such a performance would have been impressive even from a 4-year-old at the peak of his powers. Coming from an 8-year-old making his 80th start, the effort was downright extraordinary.
“Fabulous Native Diver, refusing to bow to age and four rivals, scored a blazing wire-to-wire triumph … as an unbelieving crowd of 51,664 roared a warm and royal ovation for the king of California Thoroughbreds,” wrote Martin Kivel in the Independent Star-News of Pasadena, Calif. on July 16, 1967.
In some respects, Native Diver was lucky to be able to run at all. Jill Williams, writing in “Thoroughbred Champions: Top 100 Racehorses of the 20th Century,” points out: “Native Diver was a wild horse at heart, injuring his back in a spree of impetuous behavior as a yearling. As a result, he ran with his head held high to accommodate the injury. His fractiousness left his connections no choice but to geld him, but the operation did little to calm his spirit.”
Maybe that was a good thing. Native Diver knew of only one way to run – fast from start to finish – and his free-running style served him well for seven seasons. With the aid of longtime jockey Jerry Lambert and lifetime trainer Buster Millerick, Native Diver was able to make the most of his vast potential and make history along the way. With his third triumph in the Hollywood Gold Cup, he became just the seventh horse in history to win more than a million dollars.
Native Diver routinely dominated races coveted to this day as major prizes. The Malibu Stakes? He won it by 6 ¼ lengths. The San Francisco Mile? He won it twice, four years apart. The San Diego Handicap? He won it three times, just like he did the Hollywood Gold Cup and the Inglewood Handicap.
The Palos Verdes Handicap, the San Carlos Handicap, the Los Angeles Handicap – over the course of time Native Diver won them each twice, and not always consecutively. Throw in more than a dozen other stakes races Native Diver claimed at one time or another, and the sheer breadth of his race record becomes staggering by modern standards.
We can only imagine how many races Native Diver might have won if not for his untimely passing. In September 1967, less than two weeks after winning the 1 1/8-mile Del Mar Handicap in track-record time, Native Diver was stricken with colic. Although rushed to the University of California, Davis, veterinarians were unable to save the great gelding.
Newspapers across the country carried the story and mourned Native Diver’s passing. “The ‘big black horse’ thrilled horsemen and fans every time he went to the track,” wrote Ed Romero in the Sept. 13, 1967 edition of the San Francisco Examiner. “For the ‘Diver’ even a training drill was a thing of beauty. His dawn trials were in the main faster than most horses run in competition.”
Millerick paid tribute to his stable star by simply telling the Examiner, “He was the best horse anyone ever trained.”
Perhaps after seven years of conditioning the brilliant, black blur, Millerick’s opinion could be considered biased. But then again, maybe Millerick was on to something. Pour through the history books. Examine the race records of the sport’s greatest champions. When it comes to sustained success at a high level, over a wide variety of distances, you’d be hard-pressed to find another horse like Native Diver.
- Native Diver retired with a record of 37 wins, 7 seconds, and 12 thirds from 81 starts.
- By accumulating earnings of $1,026,500, Native Diver became the first California-bred racehorse to earn more than $1 million.
- Native Diver was a son of Imbros out of the Devil Diver mare Fleet Diver, whom the Shapiros claimed for just $3,500 in 1954.
- Native Diver only ran once outside of California, finishing sixth in the 1965 Washington Park Handicap at Arlington Park in Illinois.
- In 1978, Native Diver was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame. He is considered one of the greatest horses to never win a championship title.
- Native Diver was originally buried at Hollywood Park, where he scored many of his greatest victories. When Hollywood Park closed down at the end of 2013, Native Diver’s remains were transferred to Del Mar.