No horse rivaled him in California during the 1960's.
He went into the starting gate 81 times, notching 37 victories, 7 seconds, and 12 thirds in seven seasons of competition. Of those 37 victories, 34 came in stakes. He was tough in sprints and in routes, and he loved to take the early lead.
Known for his temper, he also managed to make history on a couple of occasions. In one instance, he joined a club that consisted of just a handful of Thoroughbreds when he achieved a rare feat. That coincided with the biggest win of his career, which solidified his legendary status.
To top off those accomplishments, he was a California-bred horse, one of the Golden State's own. That made him even more loved, and he thrilled crowds with his speed, durability, and appetite for winning.
Given his California roots, it seemed like destiny that he won at the major tracks both in the Northern and Southern parts of the state. Bay Meadows. Golden Gate Fields. Tanforan. Del Mar. Hollywood Park. Santa Anita. You will find his name as a race winner at each of those venues, and his fans that saw him in person will never forget his toughness or his brilliance.
A son of California-bred stakes winner Imbros, Native Diver was born in 1959. Out of the Devil Diver mare Fleet Diver (which gave him ties to 1943 Triple Crown winner Count Fleet), Native Diver got the "Native" part of his name from Native Dancer, the dominant horse of the early 1950's who became racing's first television star. There were no connections between Native Dancer and Native Diver, but they both were descendants of the 1945 Preakness Stakes champion Polynesian.
Despite lacking formal ties, the Dancer and the Diver shared something in common: they loved to win.
Bred and owned by Mr. and Mrs. Louis K. Shapiro and trained by Michael "Buster" Millerick, Native Diver was quick to get into the win column. He took his first three starts by a combined 23 3/4 lengths, breaking his maiden at Bay Meadows and then winning his next two at Tanforan. That third victory marked his stakes debut, the El Camino Handicap, and it would be far from the last.
Native Diver only started five times as a juvenile, largely running in Northern California. He headed to the Southland for much of 1962, winning and placing in races at Hollywood Park. He came back to Bay Meadows for the final part of the year, racking up more stakes wins before getting his first Santa Anita triumph in the Malibu. The 1962 season offered a glimpse of how nuanced a racehorse Native Diver could be. He won while he sprinted and routed, and got his picture taken at Bay Meadows, Hollywood Park, and Santa Anita. And he was credited with a half-dozen stakes wins.
That was only the start.
The Diver did not let up as the 1960's progressed. He continued visiting tracks all over the state and leaving them with the winner's share of the purse. Outside of his rookie year, he won no less than three stakes events each season he was in action, and usually it was more. He expanded his talents to include routing, where he demonstrated the ability to win at various distances of one mile or longer. He still sprinted throughout his career as well, showing how deft he was at different furlongs.
Moreover, the star horse knew how to navigate off tracks and return from a layoff, reaching the wire first with either scenario in play. Even saddled with weight as high as 131 pounds, Native Diver was game, and victorious. Race fans saw him conquer his rivals by daylight, and they saw him prevail in photo finishes. There was little that the Diver could not do.
Of all his races, the 1963 Westlake Handicap is among Native Diver's most significant. He dominated the event at Tanforan, but the day carried more weight because of who rode him. That man was Jerry Lambert.
Although Native Diver was paired with several jockeys over the years, with Ralph Neves, Don Pierce, Bill Shoemaker and Ismael Valenzuela donning the white silks with blue polka dots at least once, Lambert is by far the jockey best remembered for piloting the great gelding. Following the Westlake Handicap, Lambert would ride Native Diver for the majority of the fan favorite's starts. Together, they would form one of Thoroughbred racing's most loved duos.
Native Diver and Lambert shared a plethora of stakes wins after the Westlake, collecting trophies all over California. There was only one instance of when the Diver raced outside California, finishing sixth in the 1965 Washington Park Handicap at Arlington with Lambert. The reason, as written by Leslie Carter of the Del Mar Times, was because "his fiery nature and fractious behavior made shipping out of state too risky."
He may have hardly left home, but that does not define or diminish Native Diver. It is really more of a footnote than anything else in his illustrious career.
Despite the enormous success, something even more sublime awaited the gelding and his pilot, for they would combine to produce one of the sport's most amazing records.
Actually, records showed up a couple of times in regards to Native Diver, and unprecedented ones at that. He became the first (and to this day only) horse to win three San Diego Handicaps when he did so at Del Mar in 1963, 1964, and 1965. That was succeeded by Hollywood Park's Inglewood Handicap, which he took in 1963 and 1964 before getting his third one in 1966. Those renewals of the Inglewood accounted for a trio of Native Diver's 10 stakes wins at the Track of the Lakes and Flowers, which was still the all-time record when Hollywood Park closed its doors in 2013. But one race eclipsed all that he accomplished in the Inglewood, the San Diego, and really everything else on his resume, which was quite extensive.
When you hear of Native Diver, that race is mentioned in the same breath.
It is clear that Native Diver was fine competing at any racetrack in the Golden State, but Hollywood Park is the track the Black Horse (one of his nicknames despite his coat was more of a dark brown color) is forever associated with, and that is mainly due to the Hollywood Gold Cup. He entered the race in 1963 and 1964, missing out on the spring/summer meet's biggest prize. But the third time was the charm in 1965, when the Diver broke through for the trophy and his first win at 1 1/4 miles. He was back to try again in 1966, and the public expected him to repeat as champion. Native Diver did exactly that, forever ensuring his name in the annals of Hollywood Park when he became the first horse to win the Gold Cup twice. No one, not Seabiscuit, not Noor, not Round Table, had done that before. That win alone cemented Native Diver as a legend in Thoroughbred racing.
But, he seemed to have a sixth sense in regards to history, always ready to meet with it when it came to call. And call it did in 1967.
Native Diver was still going strong at 8 years old that season. His fans watched as he continued to pile up stakes wins and minor awards. With that trait of competitiveness remaining intact, Native Diver was back at Hollywood Park in the summer of 1967. Another Hollywood Gold Cup was up for grabs, and he attempted to make it three straight in front of his gigantic fan base.
As fate would have it, the race had an unexpected moment at the start. O'Hara, who had competed against Native Diver, unseated Ismael Valenzuela right after the gates opened. With Lambert in tow, Native Diver went right to the lead, his favorite spot. No one passed him that day, and on July 15, 1967, Native Diver made the transition from legend to immortal as he captured his third Hollywood Gold Cup. Only one horse has ever been able to duplicate that feat: Lava Man, who joined his fellow California-bred when he won the Gold Cup between the 2005 and 2007 seasons.
That third Gold Cup was Native Diver's greatest race. Not only was it immediately the stuff of legend, but Native Diver did something else no California-bred had done before him: he was the first horse foaled in the state to win $1 million in earnings, and he was the seventh horse overall to reach the seven figure mark. That symbolized Native Diver's perseverance and longevity. He did not win every race, of course. But he did not let a defeat stop him, either. Winning that third Hollywood Gold Cup and making it to the million dollar threshold was a tribute to the greatness of Native Diver.
In a notable example of his resolve, Native Diver ran the 1966 Hollywood Gold Cup faster than he had in 1965, then turned around and lowered his standard again in 1967. He simply loved to run.
Coming off his shining moment at Hollywood Park, Native Diver returned to Del Mar in early September, winning the Del Mar Handicap. Everyone at the seaside was aware they saw one of the greats of Thoroughbred history, but none of them knew they were in attendance for what turned out to be his final career start.
Less than two weeks after the Del Mar Handicap, Native Diver came down with colic. He was taken to the UC Davis Medical Center to get rid of the disease. Sadly, the doctors could not save him.
The sudden passing of Native Diver affected an untold number of people, for he attracted scores of fans with his swiftness and penchant for competing. It was decided his final resting place would be at Hollywood Park, the track where he held court for so long. Until 2013, when the Home of Champions closed, fans could see the Diver's memorial, which paid tribute to his Hollywood Gold Cup record.
After Hollywood Park announced live racing would stop at the end of that same year, an effort was made to bring Native Diver to Del Mar. An archeological team from USC sought the gelding, finding him intact after nearly a half-century. He was subsequently taken to Del Mar, and Millard Sheets's artwork contained in the memorial at Hollywood Park is there in an equally beautiful tribute to him along the west tunnel wall.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Native Diver is how he displayed longevity in his heyday and has continued to do so in the decades since. To start with, he set or equaled five track records and tied one world record while on track. Though some of the races have changed distances or names (or both), or are now defunct, a study of those event histories will show that the times Native Diver set for at least some of those contests still rank among the fastest ever, if not the fastest, for the route of ground he contested.
He still shares or holds records outright for most wins in several races, including Santa Anita's San Carlos and Palos Verdes Stakes. Up in Northern California, the San Francisco Mile is contested every year at Golden Gate Fields. A handful of horses are multiple winners of the Grade III contest, and the Diver is among them.
Back when Hollywood Park was in operation, the Los Angeles Handicap was part of the track's spring/summer schedule. No horse but Native Diver won that race more than once.
Still revered by many, Native Diver received multiple honors after his unexpected passing. He was elected to the National Racing Hall of Fame in 1978, made one of the charter members of the California Thoroughbred Breeders Association Hall of Fame in 1987, and ranked #60 on the Blood-Horse's Top 100 Thoroughbreds of the 20th century.
Hollywood Park gave one of its best loved stars another touching tribute. Starting in 1978, the Native Diver Stakes was held every year at the Track of the Lakes and Flowers. Although not contested in Inglewood anymore, the race has found a home on Del Mar's autumn calendar.
Native Diver's name even lives on in radio. Every Sunday morning on the Thoroughbred Los Angeles program, listeners will hear the start of Harry Henson's call in the 1967 Hollywood Gold Cup as he mentions how Native Diver takes the lead early. Footage of him can be found on the Internet as well, allowing future generations to experience the awe he radiated all those years ago.
He had it all. Courage. Drive. Speed. Talent. And heart. But above all, Native Diver was a champion. He never won a major divisional award, but he was the people's champion. He was California's champion.
In the long history of Thoroughbreds hailing from the Golden State, none are more purely Californian than Native Diver.
Sources: 2013 Betfair Hollywood Park Spring/Summer Media Guide Pg. 215
Carter, Leslie. "Native Diver among special horses with final resting place at Del Mar." Del Mar Times. Nov. 23, 2016. https://www.delmartimes.net/lifestyle/sd-cm-nc-native-diver-20161203-story.html