Native Diver: Hollywood Park's Most Prolific Champion

Over the course of seven seasons, he made 81 appearances before crowds. All but one of those came in California, and he has the distinction of winning at all six major California racetracks that were around during his era.

Everyone who watched him in action witnessed a chapter unfold in his legendary career. Thousands saw those chapters being written at Bay Meadows, Del Mar, Golden Gate Fields, Santa Anita and Tanforan, and this grand gelding who was destined for immortality found success at every single one of those venues.

But for those who saw Native Diver at Hollywood Park throughout the 1960s, the feeling had to have been on a more personal level. Of all the tracks he visited, Hollywood Park is the one most closely associated with Native Diver.

Why is that? For many, it is likely because he was the first horse to win three straight Hollywood Gold Cups. And without question, that is certainly his crowning achievement.

However, saying as much also contains some irony.

While it cannot be disputed that Native Diver is the best horse in the race's history, his Gold Cup triple overshadows another accomplishment he crafted over time at the Track of the Lakes and Flowers.

What was that accomplishment? A record ten stakes victories there.

Several of those triumphs were the product of this tough, brown equine conquering multiple editions of certain races. In other instances, Native Diver only captured one renewal of a contest. But each of those events represent an aspect or milestone of the Diver's career, and that was in evidence all the way back in 1962.

1962 Debonair Stakes

Simply put, this is the one that started it all.

The date was May 12, and Native Diver made his first start at Hollywood Park. He had already demonstrated a penchant for dominating rivals, as he won his first three starts by a combined 23 3/4 lengths. After a two-race losing streak, Native Diver made his three-year-old debut at Hollywood Park that day in the six-furlong Debonair Stakes. Favored to win at 7-5, he proved his backers right to take his Hollywood Park debut.

Though it was not his first stakes win (that came in the El Camino Handicap at Tanforan several months earlier), the Debonair served as a landmark triumph early in the Diver’s career. To begin with, it was his maiden Southern California win. And second, it turned out to be a foreshadowing of what fans would see throughout the decade on Prairie Avenue.

1963 Inglewood Handicap

Those fans would have to wait thirteen months for Native Diver’s next win at Hollywood Park. That came in the mile and one-sixteenth Inglewood Handicap, long a staple of the venue’s spring-summer schedule. Native Diver had added to his stakes collection between visits to the Home of Champions, but was now in the midst of a five-race losing streak, the longest he would ever experience in his days as a racehorse.

It should be noted that the Diver inherited the ability to sprint and route through his sire, Imbros. But that fact also shows a key difference between the two. While Imbros did win going long, he was a far better sprinter. Of his 15 victories, 10 of them came at seven furlongs or less. Native Diver, on the other hand, would produce a more balanced resume. When looking at his 37 wins, 20 of them were at a mile or longer.

That includes the 1963 Inglewood Handicap. The Diver, as he loved to do, led at every point of call before getting the first place check. It was not his first win going long, as he checked that box off in the San Jose Handicap at Bay Meadows in the waning weeks of 1962. But that first Inglewood Handicap is significant for one reason. By winning it, Native Diver was officially proven at routing.

1964 Inglewood Handicap

When Hollywood Park opened in 1938, the Inglewood Handicap was part of the spring-summer meet schedule. That remained unchanged when Native Diver sought to defend his title in 1964.

After facing seven horses a year earlier, eight joined Native Diver on track for this version of the Inglewood. But after a mile and a sixteenth, the 1963 champion outlasted them all.

Once again leading at every point of call, Native Diver entered rarified air when he reached the wire. Of all the horses to start the race since 1938, only Sturdy One managed to take the race twice when he won it in 1951 and 1952. But that all changed twelve years after Sturdy One made it two in a row.

What's more, this particular iteration of the Inglewood marked the first time Native Diver won multiple runnings of a stakes race at Hollywood Park, and that stands as a memorable moment in his career.

The gelding had a knack for making history, and he would do so in the Inglewood again later on.

1965 Los Angeles Handicap

Though Native Diver was not part of the 1965 Inglewood Handicap lineup, you could still find him in action at the track that spring and summer. Ten days after taking second in the Premiere Handicap, the gelding took on eight horses in the seven-furlong Los Angeles Handicap. This was a race the Diver had yet to try, but he only needed one start to win it.

With regular rider Jerry Lambert aboard, Native Diver withstood a challenge to take the event in 1:20 flat, which would be the fastest time for the race until Triple Bend broke it in 1972 by a fifth of a second.

But even after that record fell, Native Diver's first Los Angeles Handicap win remained a significant race in his Hall of Fame career. Out of the ten stakes he won at Hollywood Park, seven of them came in route races. The Los Angeles Handicap allowed Native Diver to showcase his speed as he built his future record, and the time he produced that day served as a great indicator of the speed that flowed inside of him.

1965 American Handicap

It can be said that in regards to Native Diver's career, 1965 will always be remembered as the year he began his Hollywood Gold Cup streak. But just before he embarked on that journey, the Diver made a stop in another race a few weeks after his first Los Angeles Handicap score.

Entered in the July 5 American Handicap, Native Diver controlled the mile and one-eighth contest to win handily by a couple of lengths. It would be his lone victory in that particular race, but it gave the Diver another opportunity to shine in a race run at a middle distance. And it also served as a successful prep for the record he would be best remembered for.

1965 Hollywood Gold Cup

Before he took the photo in this one, Native Diver had actually compiled some history with the Hollywood Gold Cup.

Part of the 1963 field, he ended up fourth in his debut at a mile and one-quarter. Entered again in 1964, he fared a little bit better as he improved to third place. But as they say, the third time proved to be the charm.

Handily defeating his opposition on July 17, Native Diver had no one near him at the wire. Five lengths clear of the runner up, he became the twenty-sixth champion of the Hollywood Gold Cup while finally taking down the ten furlong distance. That stood as the Diver's biggest win...until the following summer.

1966 Inglewood Handicap

A new winner was added to the Inglewood Handicap's roster in 1966, but missing from the field that year was Native Diver. Unable to go for the three-peat, he did the next best thing: return to the race in 1966 for an unprecedented third victory.

After finishing fourteenth and last in the June 4 Californian Stakes, Native Diver came right back to the main oval exactly two weeks later. Despite losing the Californian by double digit lengths, Native Diver had the trust of the fans surrounding him. Favored at 2-1, he bounced back from his recent defeat by taking a six length victory. In doing so, he stood apart from Sturdy One as the first horse to win three Inglewood Handicaps.

The Diver now owned another Hollywood Park record, but an even bigger one would soon follow.

1966 Hollywood Gold Cup

Just under a month following his record-breaking Inglewood score, Native Diver appeared for his last start of the spring-summer season. Following a second in the American Handicap twelve days prior, Native Diver was favored to capture the Hollywood Gold Cup for the second straight year.

The betting public turned out to be right. Native Diver actually improved on his 1965 Gold Cup performance by finishing the 1966 race in quicker fashion. With a clocking of 2:00 flat, he lowered his previous time by a fifth of a second. That showed both his toughness and will to win, and the victory highlighted Native Diver's propensity for running into history.

For the first time, a horse walked out of Hollywood Park as a two-time Gold Cup winner. Forget rarified air. This was unprecedented territory. Just like that, Native Diver had secured his place in California racing.

And he would add to that down the road.

1967 Los Angeles Handicap

Before we discuss this race, let us briefly return to 1966. Native Diver started in that year's Los Angeles Handicap, but he would not repeat as its champion, finishing fourth. But 1967 was a whole different story.

This time, seven horses looked to keep the fan favorite from regaining his title. But Native Diver outran them all, getting to the wire to again stand alone in Hollywood Park lore.

On that day, May 20, Native Diver became the first horse to win the Los Angeles Handicap twice. It was obviously a much better conclusion compared to how the 1966 race went, and it also showed how Native Diver could rebound after a loss. It took a year to atone for that defeat, but it was worth the wait

Interestingly, the 1967 renewal closed out a chapter in Native Diver’s career. That was sprint victory number 17, and he would never compete in a race at seven furlongs or less again after that second Los Angeles Handicap haul.

But as we all know, Native Diver was not done racing yet. More photos were coming his way. And that included his biggest moment of all.

1967 Hollywood Gold Cup

Nearly sixty days had passed between the 1967 Los Angeles Handicap and Hollywood Gold Cup. After Native Diver won the former, he took back-to-back losses in the Californian and Inglewood Handicap by a combined 39 lengths. The Diver had never experienced consecutive defeats like that before, and he was not going to settle for another one.

After a second in the American Handicap on July 4, Native Diver returned to the Hollywood Gold Cup eleven days later. Already the owner of a record two wins in the marquee race, the gelding set out to secure one more.

At the opening of the gate, Ohara unseated rider Ismael Valenzuela. After that eventful beginning, Native Diver shot right to the front, his favorite spot. The fans watched as he guided the small field around Hollywood Park, wondering whether he could come up with one more win in the iconic race.

Not only did he come up with that win, he saved the best for last.

Besting his previous Hollywood Gold Cup time by more than a second, Native Diver wowed the fans with his third straight victory in the event while reaching the wire in 1:58 4/5. That was his tenth stakes win at Hollywood Park, moving him ahead of the equally legendary Swaps. On top of that new standard, Native Diver rocketed past the million dollar threshold. Only the seventh horse in racing history to join the millionaire’s club, he was also the first California-bred to do so.

In short, that third Gold Cup instantly became the stuff of legend.

Native Diver would only race once more, getting a win in the Del Mar Handicap on Labor Day before his sudden passing less than two weeks later due to colic. Already a legend before that tragic day, Native Diver made sure he would always be linked with every track in the state he visited. But when it comes to Hollywood Park, it is different.

It is different because he owned the record for stakes wins there after the 1967 Hollywood Gold Cup. It is different because he became the first Cal-bred millionaire when taking that race. It is different because he was the first to capture multiple runnings of both the Hollywood Gold Cup and the Los Angeles Handicap. And it is different because he was the first to collect three Inglewood Handicaps.

But all of that leads us to this point. No other horse won as many Inglewood and Los Angeles Handicaps as Native Diver. And only Lava Man equaled those three Hollywood Gold Cup wins. Make no mistake, Lava Man deserves immense respect for that accomplishment, but he differs from the Diver in at least one way. Two of his three wins in the race produced a time of over two minutes. Only one of Native Diver's victories exceeded that time.

So, what do the ten stakes victories mean? Individually, they all carry special value in Native Diver’s career, as we have seen. But collectively, they can all be melded together to form a symbol of this California legend’s class, determination, longevity, and resolve. Remember, autumn racing was not a regular part of Southern California's calendar back then. Those wins all came in the spring and summer. Native Diver built that record over a long time, and the fans that packed the grandstand watched him do it.

They were part of it. They were part of him rewriting the record book, and he won more stakes at Hollywood Park than at any other track. Furthermore, Native Diver was a Cal-bred, and that endeared him to the fans.

And legend is another key word, for that record is symbolic of Native Diver’s legend as well. From the moment he won the 1967 Hollywood Gold Cup to that final day of racing in 2013, no horse ever managed to match that stakes record, much less surpass it. And no horse ever will.

No, the record highlights everything great about Native Diver. And it confirms that of all the racetracks he visited in his seven seasons of competition, none meant more to the Diver’s career or legend than Hollywood Park.

Published by Support California Horse Racing, December 22, 2023