1963-1965: Native Diver's Other Threepeat
When one thinks of Native Diver, the inevitable image that appears will likely be that of his greatest triumph: the 1967 Hollywood Gold Cup.
Of course, that would come with good reason. Native Diver did something that day that no one before him had even come close to accomplishing. And only one horse (Lava Man) has done so since the Diver's day.
But before the Diver entered immortal status thanks to his Gold Cup triple, he accomplished something else that had never been done in California racing. And to this day, no one else has matched this feat.
While Native Diver's adventures at Hollywood Park have long since reached legendary status, the gelding was a a regular presence at the San Diego County track throughout his career. He made at least one appearance on track between the 1962 and 1965 seasons, and did so again in 1967 when he won the Del Mar Handicap in what turned out to be his final career start. His first win by the beach actually came in the 1963 San Diego Handicap, which he did in typical Native Diver fashion: he took control early and never looked back, covering the mile and one-sixteenth distance in 1:40 3/5. The race marked the final time Native Diver and Ralph Neves teamed up for a victory (Neves rode the Diver for much of the Cal-bred's first three seasons before Jerry Lambert became the regular pilot).
Speaking of Lambert, he had the mount on Native Diver by the time racing returned to Del Mar in the summer of 1964. The duo had already shared some stakes triumphs together, including the Oakland and Inglewood Handicaps, and were actually coming off a third in the Hollywood Gold Cup. The public expected Native Diver to repeat as champion of the San Diego Handicap, and the Buster Millerick trainee obliged. Getting into early contention, Native Diver took over by the half-mile mark. And like so many times when he had the lead, he did not let anybody else have it, coming to the wire by four lengths to join Prevaricator (1948, 1949) as only the second back-to-back winner of the contest, as well as the third horse overall to win it twice (Eddie Schmidt was the 1957 and 1960 champion).
That was a significant achievement, and it put the Diver in rare company. But just like what would happen in the 1967 Hollywood Gold Cup, the popular gray Thoroughbred who loved to run had another big effort in store at the seaside.
When Native Diver returned to Del Mar in 1965, he was coming off his first Gold Cup win (interestingly, he raced in the Gold Cup all three years before making his next start in the San Diego). Really, the Hollywood Park meet had been fantastic for him, Millerick, and his owners, Mr. and Mrs. Louis K. Shapiro. Before Native Diver's initial Gold Cup triumph, they enjoyed victories in the Los Angeles and American Handicaps, and the Diver had yet to finish off the board that year. Already in admirable form, Native Diver set out for another win in front of the Del Mar crowd.
It was August 7, 1965. Once again the overwhelming favorite, the son of Imbros went right to his favorite position: the lead. And just as he had the previous two years, he guided the field around Del Mar's main oval. After a time of 1:40, which equaled the track record, Native Diver stood alone on the mountain that was the San Diego Handicap, moving past Prevaricator and Eddie Schmidt to become the race's lone three-time winner. With Lambert again in the irons, Native Diver came to the wire three and one-half lengths clear, and the wire served as a doorway to Del Mar history.
That would be the final time Native Diver competed in the San Diego Handicap. He made just one more start at the track after that, which was his Del Mar Handicap score in 1967. He never lost in the San Diego Handicap, and to this day remains its only three-time winner. To put that in perspective, only four horses have won the event twice since the Diver's 1965 victory: Super Diamond (1985, 1987), Skimming (2000, 2001), Choctaw Nation (2004, 2005), and Catalina Cruiser (2018, 2019).
Clearly, it is rare for a horse to repeat as champion of the San Diego, and it is a laudable accomplishment for all who have done so. But Native Diver, with his determination and gift for running, put himself on a whole different level when it came to that particular race. And it is a level no horse has yet to reach.
One more interesting aspect of the San Diego was how Native Diver's final win directly followed his first Hollywood Gold Cup victory. Of course, he would go on win Hollywood Park's biggest race two more times, but it is intriguing to note how his San Diego Handicap streak overlapped, and really segued, into his successful Gold Cup run. It was almost as if a foreshadowing of what was to come happened during those three summers at Del Mar, and both of those records are a tribute to the talent and longevity of one of California racing's all-time greats.
Though Native Diver's crowning achievement is his trio of Hollywood Gold Cups, he earned another place in racing lore beforehand. Over a half-century after completing his first threepeat, it can be said that Native Diver is the San Diego Handicap's grand champion.