Should Siphon win the $1-million Hollywood Gold Cup on Sunday at Hollywood Park, he will become only the second horse to repeat in the 58-year-old race.
But even if the Brazilian-bred makes it consecutive victories in the 1 1/4-mile event, Siphon will have to do it again in 1998 to match Native Diver.
Thirty years ago, the dark brown gelding, one of the most beloved thoroughbreds in California racing history, ran off with his third Gold Cup.
Fourth in the 1963 Gold Cup and third the next year, Native Diver, who was foaled at the Canoga Park ranch of his owners, Mr. and Mrs. Louis Shapiro, in 1959, didn't disappoint when favored in the race in 1965 and '66.
Ridden by Jerry Lambert for trainer Michael E. "Buster" Millerick, who favored four-letter words, cigars, animals of all kinds and never missed church on Sunday, the headstrong horse who needed the lead to be successful won by five lengths under 124 pounds in 1965, then came back a year later to win by nearly the same margin carrying 126.
Those weight assignments might send some of today's trainers into shock, but Native Diver often carried more. When he won the San Francisco Mile at Golden Gate Fields two months before his final Gold Cup triumph, he packed 133 pounds.
The result of a mating between Imbros and Devil Diver, a mare the Shapiros had claimed for $3,500, Native Diver finished with 37 victories in 81 starts and $1,026,500 in earnings. Remarkably, 34 of his wins came in stakes races at six California tracks, at distances from six furlongs to 1 1/4 miles.
None of those victories was more emotionally charged than his third Gold Cup in 1967. At age 8, Native Diver had lost his three previous starts and was facing a nemesis half his age in Pretense.
Trained by Charlie Whittingham for Llangollen Farm, Pretense had beaten Native Diver five times that year and, going into the Gold Cup, had six stakes wins in 1967, including the Santa Anita Handicap. He was the 3-10 favorite and 131-pound highweight in the field of five.
Instead, the 9-2 second choice, who was carrying 123 pounds, won as though he should have been heavily favored. In a race in which O'Hara stumbled leaving the gate, unseating jockey Milo Valenzuela, Native Diver opened up four lengths after a 23-second first quarter, led by six after a 45 4/5 half-mile and defeated Pretense by five lengths.
He completed the 1 1/4 miles in 1:58 4/5, a fifth of a second off the track record then shared by Swaps and Round Table.
The Hollywood Park crowd of 51,664 was thrilled, giving Native Diver, who had become only the seventh horse--and first California-bred--to pass $1 million in earnings, a long and loud ovation. Witnesses said race caller Harry Henson's announcement that the oldest winner of the Gold Cup had become a millionaire was lost in the noise.
"It was a tremendous explosion of warmth and admiration," said Bob Benoit, then Hollywood Park's assistant director of publicity. "Whether people had bet on him or not, they were all caught up in the moment. He was the people's horse.
"He had looks, there was something regal about him and everybody loves [fast] horses that can carry their speed. They said he was dark brown, but he was black. He was one of those horses that gave you the impression he knew he was good and he knew he had done well, and I think people responded to that.
"When he used to go to the track in the morning, he used to stop and look around and take everything in like John Henry did. Once, he stopped in the post parade [before a race] and just stared at the tote board, then turned around and looked at the crowd as if to say, 'You people have no idea what my price should be.' "
The Gold Cup was Native Diver's 10th and final stakes victory at Hollywood Park and the penultimate of his career.
It was also one of 22 stakes he won with Lambert, who never used the whip on Native Diver.
"I never even showed him the stick," Lambert once said. "There were times when I was tempted to use it, because it was the natural thing to do, but I never did.
"He was a horse with character. He knew he was good and he loved every minute of it."
Two months after the 1967 Gold Cup, Native Diver was dead. Eight days after winning the Del Mar Handicap--tying the track record for 1 1/8 miles despite carrying 130 pounds--Native Diver began coughing while being transported by van from Del Mar to Northern California.
He had colic and he was rushed from Bay Meadows to UC Davis, where efforts to save him failed. He died Sept. 13.
Dr. John Wheat, head of the veterinary medicine department at UC Davis at the time, said the cause of death was a "gastric rupture of the stomach." A necropsy showed that Native Diver's heart weighed about 10 1/2 pounds, and Wheat was quoted as saying it was the biggest heart he had seen in a horse.
The news probably didn't surprise his trainer. "The greatest thing about Native Diver is his heart," Millerick said in 1965. "He always runs his heart out. He'd run if he had a broken leg."
The next day, he was buried in what is now the saddling paddock at Hollywood Park. A 20-foot monument to his three Gold Cup victories was dedicated April 11, 1969, at the spot in front of the grandstand.
Of course, there was more to his career than Gold Cups. He set or matched five track records, and he tied the world record for seven furlongs (1:20) when he beat Viking Spirit by a neck in the 1965 Los Angeles Handicap at Hollywood Park.
Ken Church, a former jockey and longtime member of Del Mar's publicity staff, remembers that race well because he was Viking Spirit's regular rider.
"He was a different kind of horse," said Church, who rode Native Diver once, finishing off the board. "He was big and black with that white [T-shaped blaze] on his head and that set him apart. He was high-strung and, in the paddock, he would prance and keep his head up high and he ran with his head like that.
"The thing I remember [about the L.A. Handicap] is that people said Native Diver was faint-hearted and that he would chuck it if somebody got in front of him. Viking Spirit got right to his throat and even got in front of him by a good head, but he came on again and won. He was pretty game that day.
"He was something else. He was very fast, but he carried his speed a mile and a quarter, he carried weight and he was good for a number of years. [Lambert] fit him perfectly. He was a good, strong hand rider and was just right for that horse. [Native Diver] didn't need the whip because he was going as fast as he could. The only rap on him was that he didn't handle off tracks too well."
The kind of success Native Diver enjoyed never could have been imagined given his beginnings. A story in a national magazine, written after he won his third Gold Cup, described him as a clumsy yearling who had difficulty walking and who fell so often he wound up injuring his back.
Difficult to manage, he was gelded early in his training and blossomed for Millerick, a crusty but well-respected trainer who, entering the current meeting, ranks eighth on Hollywood Park's all-time list with 467 wins and who trained more than 50 stakes winners before his death in 1986.
Native Diver won his first stake late in his 2-year-old season, then won no fewer than four every year between 1962-67, shedding quickly the reputation he was merely a sprinter.
"Buster managed that horse incredibly well," said Pete Pedersen, a longtime steward in California. "He was a wild horse and to keep him going as long as he did was remarkable. He was a great horseman. He knew more about horses than the horses did. They were his whole life, and he was very good to his horses.
"You had to know Buster. He acted like he was going to spit in your eye, but, inside, he was warm-hearted and everybody that knew him liked him."
Millerick's affection for Native Diver was obvious. He had a habit of not going to the winner's circle after races, but the week after the third Gold Cup victory he attended a winner's circle ceremony to honor the horse. He even removed his hat.
"I'd never seen him do that before," said Benoit, recalling that Millerick was bald. "I remember we were taking bets on whether he'd show up or not."
Judging by how he felt about the black beauty, nothing would have allowed him to be elsewhere. After Native Diver's death, Millerick said simply, "He was the best horse anyone ever trained."
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Year by Year
A look at Native Diver's career record, listed by starts, firsts, seconds, thirds and earnings:
* 1961: 5-3-0-1 $17,400
* 1962: 11-6-0-1 $68,225
* 1963: 15-5-3-1 $108,125
* 1964: 15-6-0-4 $127,250
* 1965: 10-7-1-1 $241,650
* 1966: 12-4-1-1 $205,750
* 1967: 13-6-2-3 $258,100
* TOTALS: 81-37-7-12 $1,026,500