Hollywood Park, 1962-1967: Native Diver's Dozen

Thirty-four. That is one of the magic numbers associated with Native Diver, one of the finest California-bred horses ever and without question the most popular horse in the state throughout the 1960s.

The number does not represent his overall win total, though it comes close. No, it signifies the amount of stakes the popular gelding won in his seven seasons of competition, and all of them were collected between the Northern and Southern California circuits.

To see Native Diver an action was to be part of an event. The son of Imbros loved to run, and he loved to lead. And he loved to win.

Trained by Buster Millerick and owned and bred by Mr. and Mrs. Louis K. Shapiro, the Diver made history as he became just the second horse to win races at six California tracks: Bay Meadows, Golden Gate and Tanforan up North, and Del Mar, Santa Anita and Hollywood Park down South.

Of those tracks, Hollywood Park is the venue most commonly associated with Native Diver, and justifably so. The brown horse will forever be known as the first three-time winner of the Hollywood Gold Cup, but that is far from being his only notable accomplishment at the legendary Inglewood venue.

As previously noted, Native Diver raced for several years. For six of those campaigns, he found himself a stakes winner at Hollywood Park. And in the process, he built more records that no one will ever touch.

Native Diver's first season at the races was in 1961, but he would not visit Hollywood Park until the following year. That debut on Prairie Avenue happened in May 1962 in the six furlong Debonair Handicap. Ralph Neves was his dance partner, and Native Diver took charge on the main track. He got the lead early, and beat everyone to the wire for his second stakes win (he captured the El Camino Handicap at Tanforan in the fall of 1961).

Fast forward to 1963. Native Diver was back at Hollywood Park for the spring/summer meet. After a sixth in the Hollywood Premiere Handicap and a second in the Coronado Handicap, the gelding returned to the track's winners' circle when he beat seven rivals in the Inglewood Handicap at a mile and one-sixteenth, again with Neves in the saddle. Up to that point, Neves had been Native Diver's regular rider, teaming up with him for several victories. But as the old saying goes, what a difference a year makes.

When the 1964 renewal of the Inglewood Handicap rolled around, Native Diver found himself with a new regular rider: Jerry Lambert. Like Neves before him, Lambert would become the Diver's regular teammate. would stay in place for the rest of the speedy horse's career.

The Inglewood Handicap was not the first stakes win in the Diver/Lambert partnership, but it was the first for them at Hollywood Park, and Native Diver bettered his time in the race by three-fifths of a second. That was his last start at the track for the spring/summer season, but more visits awaited.

In terms of versatility, the 1965 spring/summer meeting saw Native Diver at his finest. He took third in the Premiere Handicap, but rebounded to take the seven furlong Los Angeles Handicap by a neck in a fantastic time of 1:20 flat. The 1 1/8 mile American Handicap served as his follow up, and the Diver won the event in his third try. But he saved the best for last, for his first win in the Hollywood Gold Cup followed. Interestingly, that was Native Diver's third attempt to win Hollywood Park's biggest event. And as we all know, he was far from done where that particular race was concerned.

The 1966 season saw Native Diver win twice at Hollywood Park, and the fans were treated to history both times. Two years after his second Inglewood Handicap victory, the Diver won the race for an unprecedented third time. He equaled his time from the 1964 edition, finishing the 1 1/16 miles in 1:41 3/5 and doing so by six lengths. A runner-up score in the American Handicap followed, and then came his successful title defense in the Hollywood Gold Cup. Again, Native Diver made history in front of his abundant and adoring public. No one before him had won the race twice, but the Diver struck down that barrier to the delight of thousands. Make no mistake, Native Diver ensured his place as a racing legend the moment his nose met the wire.

But the California-bred had no designs on stopping yet. Back in action in 1967, he again concluded the spring/summer meet with a pair of stakes while summoning history to his side. He became the first (and to date, only) two-time winner of the Los Angeles Handicap before going through a three-race winless streak. That did not keep him from returning to the Hollywood Gold Cup, but he was not favored like he had been the previous two seasons. Still, he was not a longshot, settling in around 9-2 in the wagering.

What transpired next was one of the grandest moments in racing history. O'Hara unseated jockey Ismael Valenzuela just after the gates opened, and Lambert and Native Diver stormed right to the lead. The crowd watched them navigate Hollywood Park together like they had so many times before, leading the field around the main track.

No one took the lead from them.

Heading down the final stretch, the enormous Hollywood Park crowd roared its support for Native Diver, who finished off the 1 1/4 miles in 1:58 4/5. That was a faster time than he had produced in the 1966 Hollywood Gold Cup, which he ran faster than he had in 1965.

If his second Hollywood Gold Cup made him a legend of racing, the third victory turned Native Diver into an immortal. That turned out to be his last ever start at the Home of Champions, but one could not have devised a better conclusion to his time at Hollywood Park. Not only was he the first three-time winner of the grand event, he became the first California-bred to earn $1 million on the track.

He just had that knack for meeting up with history.

In total, Native Diver won ten stakes at Hollywood Park, the most of any horse in track history. But the number is just a fraction of what that record signifies, for it is a celebration of Native Diver's talent and longevity.

He was a runner, and his stakes record at the track consisted of victories at five different distances. Just with that record alone, Native Diver showed he could handle sprints, middle distance contests, and the classic distance of 1 1/4 miles.

And of course, his record was built over the course of seven seasons. No one ever topped or equaled it for the rest of Hollywood Park's existence, and what makes the accomplishment even more impressive was that it came when there was no autumn racing at Hollywood Park (that did not begin until 1981). Native Diver had to wait every spring for racing to return at Hollywood Park to add to his collection. And did he put together a collection.

Expanding on his longevity, Native Diver still stands as the only three-time winner of the Inglewood Handicap (the race was last run in 2015, and no one has caught up to him in the Los Angeles Handicap. And as for the Hollywood Gold Cup goes, only Lava Man has matched the Diver's three victories.

The final point centers around margins of victory. Native Diver could eke out victories by the slimmest of margins (the Debonair was won by a nose and the 1965 Los Angeles Handicap by a neck) and he could win by daylight (each of his Hollywood Gold Cup victories were won by a minimum of 4 3/4 lengths). In short, he was a game equine.

Native Diver's Hollywood Gold cup record stands as his grandest triumph, and understandably so. But his stakes record symbolizes his all-around prowess as a racehorse. He just had it all, and the fans revered him for that reason.

And those who watched him in person had the honor of seeing one of the greatest and most loved horses in the history of the Track of the Lakes and Flowers.

Entry added July 17, 2020. AF