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Golden Moments

Native Diver Had Three of Them in Hollywood Park's Premier Race, and No Other Horse Has Come Close to Duplicating the Feat

June 27, 1997|BOB MIESZERSKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Should Siphon win the $1-million Hollywood Gold Cup on Sunday at Hollywood Park, he will become only the second horse to repeat in the 58-year-old race.

But even if the Brazilian-bred makes it consecutive victories in the 1 1/4-mile event, Siphon will have to do it again in 1998 to match Native Diver.

Thirty years ago, the dark brown gelding, one of the most beloved thoroughbreds in California racing history, ran off with his third Gold Cup.

Fourth in the 1963 Gold Cup and third the next year, Native Diver, who was foaled at the Canoga Park ranch of his owners, Mr. and Mrs. Louis Shapiro, in 1959, didn't disappoint when favored in the race in 1965 and '66.

For the record
Los Angeles Times Saturday June 28, 1997 Home Edition Sports Part C Page 13 Sports Desk 1 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
The photo accompanying a story on three-time Hollywood Gold Cup winner Native Diver in Friday's editions was incorrectly of Native Dancer. Native Diver is shown above.
PHOTO: The photo accompanying a story on three-time Hollywood Gold Cup winner Native Diver in Friday's editions was incorrectly of Native Dancer. Native Diver is shown above.
PHOTOGRAPHER: Los Angeles Times

Ridden by Jerry Lambert for trainer Michael E. "Buster" Millerick, who favored four-letter words, cigars, animals of all kinds and never missed church on Sunday, the headstrong horse who needed the lead to be successful won by five lengths under 124 pounds in 1965, then came back a year later to win by nearly the same margin carrying 126.

Those weight assignments might send some of today's trainers into shock, but Native Diver often carried more. When he won the San Francisco Mile at Golden Gate Fields two months before his final Gold Cup triumph, he packed 133 pounds.

The result of a mating between Imbros and Devil Diver, a mare the Shapiros had claimed for $3,500, Native Diver finished with 37 victories in 81 starts and $1,026,500 in earnings. Remarkably, 34 of his wins came in stakes races at six California tracks, at distances from six furlongs to 1 1/4 miles.

None of those victories was more emotionally charged than his third Gold Cup in 1967. At age 8, Native Diver had lost his three previous starts and was facing a nemesis half his age in Pretense.

Trained by Charlie Whittingham for Llangollen Farm, Pretense had beaten Native Diver five times that year and, going into the Gold Cup, had six stakes wins in 1967, including the Santa Anita Handicap. He was the 3-10 favorite and 131-pound highweight in the field of five.

Instead, the 9-2 second choice, who was carrying 123 pounds, won as though he should have been heavily favored. In a race in which O'Hara stumbled leaving the gate, unseating jockey Milo Valenzuela, Native Diver opened up four lengths after a 23-second first quarter, led by six after a 45 4/5 half-mile and defeated Pretense by five lengths.

He completed the 1 1/4 miles in 1:58 4/5, a fifth of a second off the track record then shared by Swaps and Round Table.

The Hollywood Park crowd of 51,664 was thrilled, giving Native Diver, who had become only the seventh horse--and first California-bred--to pass $1 million in earnings, a long and loud ovation. Witnesses said race caller Harry Henson's announcement that the oldest winner of the Gold Cup had become a millionaire was lost in the noise.

"It was a tremendous explosion of warmth and admiration," said Bob Benoit, then Hollywood Park's assistant director of publicity. "Whether people had bet on him or not, they were all caught up in the moment. He was the people's horse.

"He had looks, there was something regal about him and everybody loves [fast] horses that can carry their speed. They said he was dark brown, but he was black. He was one of those horses that gave you the impression he knew he was good and he knew he had done well, and I think people responded to that.

"When he used to go to the track in the morning, he used to stop and look around and take everything in like John Henry did. Once, he stopped in the post parade [before a race] and just stared at the tote board, then turned around and looked at the crowd as if to say, 'You people have no idea what my price should be.' "

The Gold Cup was Native Diver's 10th and final stakes victory at Hollywood Park and the penultimate of his career.

It was also one of 22 stakes he won with Lambert, who never used the whip on Native Diver.

"I never even showed him the stick," Lambert once said. "There were times when I was tempted to use it, because it was the natural thing to do, but I never did.

"He was a horse with character. He knew he was good and he loved every minute of it."

Two months after the 1967 Gold Cup, Native Diver was dead. Eight days after winning the Del Mar Handicap--tying the track record for 1 1/8 miles despite carrying 130 pounds--Native Diver began coughing while being transported by van from Del Mar to Northern California.

He had colic and he was rushed from Bay Meadows to UC Davis, where efforts to save him failed. He died Sept. 13.

Dr. John Wheat, head of the veterinary medicine department at UC Davis at the time, said the cause of death was a "gastric rupture of the stomach." A necropsy showed that Native Diver's heart weighed about 10 1/2 pounds, and Wheat was quoted as saying it was the biggest heart he had seen in a horse.

The news probably didn't surprise his trainer. "The greatest thing about Native Diver is his heart," Millerick said in 1965. "He always runs his heart out. He'd run if he had a broken leg."

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