His is a name that has fallen out racing’s spotlight, despite his long list of victories and devoted fans. He is rarely mentioned among the likes of Man O’War or Secretariat, yet his fleeting fame and tremendous running style should have cemented him in the hearts of racing fans. He was a coal black horse, with a lightning fast stride and a haughty air about him, and he proved himself time and time again to be one of the century’s greatest racehorses. His is a story of victory, hope, speed, and tragedy.
Native Diver’s story began when the Shapiro family claimed the racemare Fleet Diver and bred her to Imbros, a fairly good stallion who had set a world record in 1954. The black foal arrived in early 1959, and right from the start, his charisma and presence was apparent. Diver was a fractious colt, and although his attitude could be difficult, he was unnervingly quick and had precocious speed. When it became apparent that his behavior was hindering his performance, he was gelded, which seemed to help him focus. Still, he never lost his fiery demeanor.
Native Diver began training with Buster Millerick in preparation for his two-year old season. His first year on the track, he won three of five races, including the El Camino Handicap, earning just over $17,000. The next year, he came back strong as a three year old, winning six of his eleven starts. He was off to a good start, but Millerick had quite a job before him. His challenge was to turn the unruly sprinter into a more versatile horse who could go longer distances. This meant stretching Diver’s ability and endurance without compromising his unique and successful running style.
Some may have brushed him away, noting his on-again, off-again form and quirky running style. Diver had a great thirst for speed, and would rocket to the lead right out of the gate. Head thrust up like a periscope and legs pumping furiously, he would retain the lead until the far turn, where he would take a breather and allow the closers to run up against him. Then, at the top of the stretch, regular jockey Jerry Lambert would give him the cue, and he would blast away from the pack. His less-than-stellar races only proved him mortal, for when he won, he did so with flair.
In the 1962 Hillsdale Handicap at Bay Meadows, Diver not only claimed victory, but shattered the national track record at six furlongs, clocking a speedy 1:08 2/5. His record had proved him worthy, yet even track records and impressive victories leave racegoers demanding more proof. Even the greatest horses cannot rest upon their laurels for long before their integrity is questioned and fresh challenges are thrust upon them.
Diver coasted into his four year old season with confident connections. Although he had a string of victories, he had much to prove, and Millerick felt that his gelding would only improve with time. Diver’s 1963 record is statistically a bit of a disappointment after his previous two, as he won only five out of fifteen races. However, when he won, he won big. He captured the Golden Gate, San Diego, Inglewood, and Westlake Handicaps, and slashed another track record in the last, going 8 1/2 furlongs in 1:41 3/5.
1964 was an equally pleasing year, with Diver winning six out of his fifteen starts, one better than the previous year. He scored back to back wins the the Inglewood and San Diego Handicaps, and added a number of other races to his list of victories. His form remained strong throughout his five year old season and his connections remained confident that he had many more wins brewing within his burnished black hide.
Things began to heat up in Diver’s six year old season, as he won seven of his ten races and a total of $241, 650 for his devoted owners. Besides winning the San Diego Handicap for the third year in a row, Diver demolished a good field in the Hollywood Gold Cup, coasting home under a light hold in the easiest of fashions. The superstar went on to equal the world record of 1:20 2/5 in the Los Angeles Handicap going 7 furlongs. If they hadn’t already, race fans were opening their eyes to Native Diver’s unearthly speed and larger-than-life personality. The racing world began to realize that this one could be great.
Diver maintained his superb form throughout his seven year old season, winning four races and earning over $200,000 for his connections. He again tasted victory in the Hollywood Gold Cup, and equaled another track record at Santa Anita going 8 1/2 furlongs in the San Bernardino Handicap, driving home in a time of 1:40 3/5.
Entering his eight year old season, Diver carried the hopes of most of California upon his gleaming back as he attempted to win an unprecedented third Gold Cup. Many believed he could do it, but he was an aging athlete and there were those who doubted that he would be able to maintain his form. On race day, Diver pranced into the paddock with his usual conviviality, and high-stepped his way across the track and into the starting gate. As the gate slammed open, jockey Milo Valenzuela was unseated when his mount stumbled, creating a potentially hazardous situation as the loose horse careened around the track alongside the other racers. Diver, however, was true to form and shot to the lead, blowing away from the pack and keeping out of trouble. Facing rivals Pretense, Biggs, and Quicken Tree, Native Diver was up against considerable barriers, yet he flew down the stretch with renewed vigor and dug in furiously. The loose horse, O’Hara, breezed up alongside him, but Diver kept focus and glided home first by more than four lengths. Not only had his win been easy and impressive, but he had run faster in his last Gold Cup than he had in the previous two.
As his eight year season charged on, Diver captured the Los Angeles Handicap for the second time, won a few more, and was in the money in all but two of his 1967 starts. The hotly contested Del Mar Handicap proved to be his last great race, as he attempted to complete his 34th stakes victory under 130 pounds. Not only did he win the race in his usual fashion, but he equaled the track record at 9 furlongs, running a blazing 1:46 3/5.
The next target on Diver’s rampage was a race up at Bay Meadows, and Diver arrived at the track a few days after his Del Mar victory. Once at Bay Meadows, though, Diver colicked, and he died a few days later on September 13th. His sudden death came as a tragedy to California racing, and was a devastating blow to the Shapiro family, who had rallied around the black horse during their own time of loss.
Native Diver’s death served as an example of the fleeting nature of horse racing, where one can hold victory one day and be left in ruins the next. The difference between winning hundereds of thousands of dollars and coming in second place can be measured in millimeters, and often is. The rollercoaster of Diver’s life only proved to racing fans that mortality is always present, and that no one can escape their fate.
Though Diver was gone, his legacy remained both on paper and in the hearts of racing fans. Winning an astonishing $1,026, 500, he became California’s first millionaire racehorse, and won 37 of his 81 starts. In 1969, a twenty foot monument to Diver was erected at Hollywood Park, and remains to this day, marking the horse’s remains. Almost a decade later, in 1978, Native Diver was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame.
The charging black horse should be remembered for his vivacious personality, stunning speed and lengthy record of wins. He carried the hopes and dreams of both his connections and his fans upon his gleaming back, and truly gave his all each time he stepped on to a track.