Native Diver, a black gelding known for his brilliant speed, represented the pinnacle of horse racing in the mid-1960s in the west. Between his debut in 1962 and his death from colic days after winning the Del Mar Handicap in 1967, he made 81 starts and won 37 of them.
He won the San Francisco Mile at Golden Gate Fields three times and the San Diego Handicap here at Del Mar three times. There were more active racetracks in California in the years that Native Diver raced and he won at six of them. He was trained by Buster Millerick, and ridden most often by Jerry Lambert.
Native Diver was the first California thoroughbred to win over $1 million ($1,026,500) and the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club has committed to keeping him alive in memory.
The 39th running of the $150,000 mile and one eighth Native Diver Handicap for three year olds and up will be run on Sunday’s card, Nov. 27. It is the third time it will be run at Del Mar.
The Hollywood Gold Cup, Hollywood Park’s premier race were triumphs for him three times — in 1965, 1966 and 1967 and his winning times for the race just kept getting faster.
He did not win outside of California; his fiery nature and fractious behavior made shipping out of state too risky.
But he won so many times at Hollywood Park that after his death a handicap race was named after Native Diver that was part of the racing calendar for 36 years.
When the Hollywood Park land was sold to developers and closed in 2013 Del Mar was happy to continue the tradition of this California star by running the Native Diver Handicap in the new Bing Crosby Season.
Race goers loved to watch him show his brilliant speed and there is visual proof still available by searching YouTube.
He died at the equine hospital at UC Davis, where he was taken in an attempt to save him during a colic attack. He was returned to Hollywood Park and buried under the trees in the walking ring and a striking and colorful memorial designed by Millard Sheets was placed near his grave.
When Hollywood Park closed in 2013, Del Mar Thoroughbred Club was asked to receive his remains.
There was already a small graveyard in the infield where Direct Express, a champion pacer, and Star Fiddle, the winner of the inaugural Del Mar Futurity in 1946 are buried.
After 47 years, Native Diver’s bones were carefully unearthed by Lynn Swartz Dodd and Tom Garrison from the Archeology Department of the University of Southern California, placed in several large plastic containers, and delivered to the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club. The track carpentry staff took on the project of building an appropriate-sized coffin with traditional handles to contain Native Diver in what is expected to be his final resting place.
The memorial designed by Sheets is now embedded in a wall on the west side of the tunnel the horses pass through to get to the track.
But the story of the little graveyard in the infield goes on. Shared Belief, a dark brown gelding, who won the Eclipse Award as a Champion two-year-old thoroughbred, and who won the TVG Pacific Classic here as a three-year-old in 2013, also died of colic Dec. 3, 2015 at UC Davis. His owner, Jim Rome, brought his cremated remains here to be buried during a small ceremony at the end of the 2016 Summer Season.