1965-1967: Native Diver's Three Hollywood Gold Cup Wins
Entering the gate for the 1967 Hollywood Gold Cup, Native Diver was already in exclusive company. He was the two-time defending champion of the event, and that accomplishment was unprecedented. Win or lose, the Diver had already earned his berth in California racing history, and the sport's history as a whole, too.
He was the Golden State's horse of the 1960s, enjoying popularity everywhere. By the 1965 Hollywood Gold Cup, Native Diver was an established stakes winner several times over. He also knew his way around Hollywood Park, collecting win after win there on multiple occasions. He was also well acquainted with the Gold Cup, having started the race the previous two years. He led for much of the way in 1963 before finishing in fourth place, and improved the next year when he finished third after again controlling the pace for a while.
During the next year, Native Diver was a win machine, capturing seven of nine starts inbetween the 1964 and 1965 Gold Cups. The last two wins had come at Hollywood Park in the Los Angeles and American Handicaps, the latter being at 1 1/8 miles. As he prepped for Hollywood Park's marquee race, the question now was whether Native Diver would finally get a win at 1 1/4 miles.
The betting public believed he would, making the California bred the post time favorite. With his regular jockey, Jerry Lambert, in the saddle, Native Diver set out to conquer the race that had eluded him the last two years. He went to the lead, a position he knew well, and established command. No one would beat him that day, and Native Diver joined Seabiscuit, Noor, Citation, Swaps, and many others as a champion of the Hollywood Gold Cup. The winning margin was five lengths, and the final time was 2:00 1/5. The third time was the charm, and it was a moment of celebration for Native Diver's fans, and it was undeniably special to see a California bred horse win one of the state's biggest races.
One year later, Native Diver was back to defend his Gold Cup title, and he was facing a larger field. Nine horses opposed him instead of six. Leading up to the 1966 renewal, Native Diver had raced thirteen times since his maiden Gold Cup victory. The results had been mixed, with the Diver securing five wins (all stakes) and some placings, but multiple off the board finishes as well. Some of those losses were not by much, though, and it was clear that Native Diver still knew how to win.
The mixed record did not bother the bettors, for the son of Imbros repeated as post time favorite. He went back to the front in his quest to repeat, and again he would not yield the lead. Just like in 1965, no one was going to dethrone Native Diver at Hollywood Park that summer day. He finished the race in 2:00, a fifth of a second quicker than the previous year. The margin of victory was 4 3/4 lengths, and the resume now had two Hollywood Gold Cups. No one had ever captured more than one, and that put Native Diver in unprecedented territory. The fan favorite was an all-time great in the Gold Cup.
From that Gold Cup to the next, Native Diver once again experienced varying results when he was in action. He had added five more wins to his collection, giving him an astounding thirty-five for his career to that point. His consistency in terms of in the money finishes was better, though. Out of twelve races since the 1966 Gold Cup, Native Diver had been third or better in all but three of them. However, going into the 1967 renewal, his last two starts were thirteenth and seventh, and he finished behind the winner by double digit lengths in both of them. As the 1967 Gold Cup loomed, would Native Diver rebound as he stared eye to eye with history?
He would not get favorite status as he bid for a triple, losing that battle to Pretense. However, Native Diver was not being overlooked by the horseplayers, either, as he was still among the top betting choices. If he won again, he would further his legend. If he didn't, he would still be remembered for his unprecedented achievement in the Gold Cup. Regardless of the outcome, Native Diver was a champion.
Five horses made their way to the gate for the 1967 Hollywood Gold Cup. Once the gates opened, something surprising happened. O'Hara unseated jockey Milo Valenzuela. Native Diver went right for the front with Pretense trailing on the outside. Biggs, the rail horse, traveled on the inside while Quicken Tree, a future Big 'Cap winner, was already a few lengths behind.
Heading for the wire for the first time, Native Diver was in control, with daylight separating him and Pretense. Biggs stayed on the inside, not far behind Pretense, while O'Hara continued running without Valenzuela. Native Diver was close to the rail going into the first turn, and the Cal-bred stayed firmly in front. That would not change going down the backstretch, and the California bred was far ahead of Pretense at that point. The Hollywood Gold Cup was a procession, but Pretense was coming. Native Diver was moving quickly, but he was not backing down, and neither was Pretense.
Throughout the far turn, less distance separated the top two, and as they approached the stretch, Pretense caught up with Native Diver, and the Hollywood Park crowd started to roar. Native Diver was on the inside while Pretense was a little wide, but still battling. One of them was going to win the race. O'Hara was still in the fray, though not eligible for the win. Going into the stretch, Native Diver still had the lead. Pretense continued his bid to pass the leader, while Biggs was making a late charge. The crowd continued to cheer the horses to the wire.
With a furlong left, Native Diver began to draw away from Pretense. The crowd was louder as the California bred expanded his lead. Victory was within reach. O'Hara had caught up to the Diver and passed him, but no one worried about O'Hara. Nothing was separating Native Diver and the Gold Cup, and that would not change in the final seconds of the race.
Jerry Lambert urged his mount, and Native Diver would not yield to his opposition. On July 15, 1967, Native Diver did not just make history. He assured himself immortality. He was now a three-time Hollywood Gold Cup champion.
Native Diver added some panache by making this Gold Cup his fastest one. He ran the ten furlongs in 1:58 4/5, more than a second quicker than the year before. Did Native Diver feel he had something to prove? Who knows? What is known is he did something no horse had done before him. In the fifty years since Native Diver's amazing accomplishment, only Lava Man has equaled the Diver's record of three wins. Like his fellow California bred, Lava Man won the Gold Cup in three consecutive runnings.
Native Diver was a blue collar horse. He gave an effort on the racetrack, and he loved to go to the lead and remain there. The fact he gave effort, along with his talent for speed, was why he was a fan favorite. In eighty-one career starts, he was third or better fifty-six times. Of his thirty-seven victories, thirty-four were in stakes. Three of them came in the race he will always be synonomous with.
After his passing, Native Diver was buried at Hollywood Park until 2014, months after the track closed (he was then relocated to Del Mar). At his monument, visitors could read his greatest accomplishment, which of course came at that very track: Three-time winner of the Hollywood Gold Cup.
Fifty years after that unforgettable day, Native Diver is rated among the greatest Cal-breds of all time. While Swaps was the hero of California in the 1950s, the 1960s unquestionably belonged to Native Diver. Whether it was Hollywood Park, Santa Anita, Bay Meadows, or any of the remaining California tracks, Native Diver could draw a crowd. In that regard, he was like Seabiscuit or Swaps. People came to see the Diver race. Those who saw him live knew they saw a racehorse, and they remember him fondly to this day.
He is Native Diver, the Hollywood Gold Cup's greatest champion.