In Saturday’s fourth race at Betfair Hollywood Park, one of America’s best geldings of recent years, Game On Dude will be favored to take his speed wire-to-wire in the $250,000 Native Diver Handicap. If he does so, it will be a fitting outcome for a race named after the legendary runner of the 1960’s. Like tomorrow’s favorite, Native Diver also relied on a high cruising speed to run his opposition into submission early and often. Win or lose tomorrow, Game On Dude has a long way to go, though, if he hopes to reach the magnificent heights enjoyed by Native Diver over a period of seven seasons, from 1961 through 1967.
Perhaps best remembered by racing fans for winning three straight Hollywood Gold Cups in the mid-sixties, Native Diver ran progressively faster each time as he won the prestigious race at the ages of six, seven, and eight, culminating with a 1:58 4/5 mile-and-a-quarter in the penultimate race of his career. As was his calling card, in each edition of the Gold Cup, Native Diver led at every call, and he won the consecutive runnings by nearly 15 lengths combined. His Hollywood Gold Cups were just a portion of a fantastic career, a career that was almost over before it began.
Native Diver was bred and owned by Mr. and Mrs. Louis K. Shapiro in California. By Imbros, out of the Devil Diver mare, Fleet Diver, The Diver, as he would come to be known, was described as a clumsy and headstrong youngster. Sustaining a serious back injury before he made it to the races, it was decided to geld the colt for his own good. When he did make it to the track for trainer, Buster Millerick, the brown gelding came out running. Winning in his first three races by an average of eight lengths, Native Diver earned his first stakes win at the old Tanforan Racetrack on November 25, 1961. It would mark an incredible streak that would see him win at least one stakes race over seven consecutive seasons.
Going right to the lead and playing catch me if you can in those first races was a successful trait that The Diver would never give up. Displaying his class and versatility, Native Diver won numerous stakes races at both 6 furlongs and 1 ¼ miles, and everywhere in between. Native Diver became a West Coast star to rival the popularity of Silky Sullivan and Swaps as he set track records at 6 furlongs and at 1 1/16 miles and equaled the world record for 7 furlongs in his home state, all the while collecting stakes wins by the bunches.
If not already the case, Native Diver cemented his place in racing lore in his final racing season at the age of eight. Having already repeated victories in the San Franciso Mile, Albany, Los Angeles, and San Carlos Handicaps, The Diver entered the 1967 Hollywood Gold Cup off of three consecutive losses. Sent off as something other than the favorite in the big race for the first time in three years, fans wondered if his age was finally starting to show. That thought would not last for long.
In quite possibly the finest performance in his great career, Native Diver overwhelmed his competition in the style that fans had become so accustomed to. Ridden by his regular rider, Jerry Lambert, Native Diver won his third consecutive Hollywood Gold Cup on July the 15th by five lengths. Defeating heavily favored Pretense easily after blitzing right to the lead and carving out fast fractions that included a 1:09 2/5 for the first six furlongs, the performance was vintage Native Diver. His final time not only eclipsed 1:59, but was only a tick behind Swaps' track record and three-fifths off Noor's world record. Fittingly, his biggest win raised his career earnings to seven digits.
All told, Native Diver earned $1,026,500 during his seven magnificent seasons, as he became the first California-bred ever to reach the million dollar mark, and the sport's seventh millionaire overall. A true Californian, The Diver never won away from the Golden State, and in fact, only competed outside of the state once in his 81 lifetime starts. He won a total of 37 races, including his final career start in the Del Mar Handicap. Sadly, eight days after winning that important race, and at Bay Meadows, getting ready for his next race, Native Diver developed colic and attempts to save the eight-year-old gelding at the animal hospital of the University of California at Davis, proved unsuccessful. Native Diver was inducted in Racing’s Hall of Fame in 1978.
Video provided by cf1970 from YouTube