The first time Jack Robbins got a look at Native Diver was in the autumn of 1960, when the black colt arrived at the old Conejo Ranch in Thousand Oaks.
Robbins, who managed Conejo for land developers Ed and Will Janss, was a widely respected veterinarian whose clientele included Ben Jones, Horatio Luro and Charlie Whittingham.
Native Diver was not impressed. The wild-eyed black colt gave Robbins fits and made life miserable for Conejo trainer Gene Cleveland. Finally, Robbins recommended gelding.
"I cut Bardstown, and he was by Alibhai out of Twilight Tear," Robbins said, referring to the regally bred gelding who earned more than $600,000 in the late 1950s. "Given that, there was no reason not to geld a son of Imbros out of a Devil Diver mare--especially as bad as he was."
Even after gelding, Native Diver was never an angel. But with his aggressions muted, he at least became trainable. The legendary Buster Millerick took over from Robbins and Cleveland, and by the time the Native Diver saga ended seven years later, racing had a hero for the ages.
Native Diver had one gear and the throttle was always wide open. Millerick's jaw dropped when he watched the young Native Diver out-work two quarter horses from the gate before he had even run a race. When he was 8, Native Diver ran the fastest 10 furlongs in the country while winning his third consecutive Hollywood Gold Cup.
He started 81 times over seven seasons and won 34 stakes races at Santa Anita, Hollywood Park, Del Mar, Tanforan, Bay Meadows and Golden Gate. He was the first Cal-bred millionaire when such lofty earnings meant something. He drew crowds in the morning for his public workouts and huge throngs for his races in the afternoon. People loved to watch "the Black Horse" do his thing.
"There hasn't been a horse like that to capture the fans' imagination since Native Diver," Robbins said. "John Henry is the only one in that league."
Hollywood Park is running the Native Diver Handicap for the 14th time Sunday. If things break just right, there's a chance history will come full circle and Jack Robbins will end up alongside the winner.
In addition to his duties as a "retired" veterinarian with a few select clients, and as a director of the Oak Tree Racing Assn., Robbins is an adviser to the California division of Jack Kent Cooke's racing stable.
Cooke and Robbins will be represented in Sunday's Native Diver by Reign Road, trained by Jay Robbins, Jack's oldest son. The stretch-running colt caught fire late last summer with consecutive stakes victories that earned him a shot at the Breeders' Cup Classic. Reign Road finished fourth.
"He's at the opposite end of the spectrum from Native Diver," Jack Robbins noted. "It took a bit of time for him to learn. But he's come around, and he's good right now."
A repeat of Reign Road's performance in the Classic should be good enough. The only horses to beat him that day were A.P. Indy, who will probably be voted horse of the year; Pleasant Tap, a top candidate for champion older horse; and Jolypha, the best 3-year-old filly in France. Pretty nice horses, but none of them in Native Diver's class.
Horse Racing Notes
The prospective field for the nine-furlong Native Diver also includes Cal Cup Classic winner June's Reward, the converted turf horse Berillon and Sir Beaufort, who finished second to Reign Road in the Goodwood Handicap and Del Mar's Budweiser/Breeders' Cup Handicap. . . . Best Pal continued his steady training toward a return with a three-furlong workout Thursday morning in 36 4/5 seconds at Hollywood Park.
River Special, Del Mar Futurity and Norfolk Stakes winner, exercised seven furlongs in 1:27 2/5 in preparation for the $500,000 Hollywood Futurity on Dec. 20, and Breeders' Cup Turf winner Fraise worked seven-eighths on the grass in 1:29 3/5 to stay on edge for the $500,000 Hollywood Turf Cup on Dec. 13. . . . Hollywood Derby runner-up Bien Bien, another Turf Cup contender, worked six furlongs at Santa Anita in 1:13 4/5.
If that tall bay with the white blaze in Sunday's maiden race for 2-year-olds looks familiar, he should. His name is Pricelessly, and his trainer, Charlie Whittingham, describes the colt as a "dead ringer" for his famous full sister, Flawlessly, winner of last Sunday's Matriarch. A son of Affirmed out of the Nijinsky mare La Confidence, Pricelessly will be making his first start for owners Patrice and Louis Wolfson.
Ron McAnally leaves town Monday on his annual trek to South America, where he will be looking for another Paseana. While in Buenos Aires, the Hall of Fame trainer will be honored with a special day at the races. Every event on the program will be named for an Argentine-bred runner that went on to American glory under McAnally: Cruiser II, Happy Guess, Auspiciante and, of course, champions Bayakoa and Paseana.
According to co-owner Will DeBurgh, Kostroma could run once more in the Dahlia Handicap at Hollywood Park on Christmas Eve before being retired. The 6-year-old mare is scheduled to be bred next spring to Forty Niner, one of the hottest young stallions in Kentucky. . . . Native Diver died on Sept. 13, 1967, of the effects of colic. He got sick after shipping by van from Los Angeles to San Francisco. His remains are buried in the north end of the saddling paddock at Hollywood Park, beneath the monument depicting his three victories in the Hollywood Gold Cup.