07/07/2010 11:00PM

Buster's triple a thing of beauty


On Aug. 13, at the National Museum of Racing in Saratoga Springs, they will hang a plaque in the Hall of Fame wing of the complex, extolling the career of the late Michael Ernest Millerick, a foul-mouthed, cigar chomping, onetime jockey from Northern California who, during a training career of half a century, went by the name of Buster.

The plaque will be nice, along with all the kind words of tribute. But those in attendance should understand that the real landmark to Millerick's finest work stands in the east end of the Hollywood Park walking ring, where the remains of the near-black gelding Native Diver rest beneath a squared-off memorial arch bearing the inlaid images of his three straight victories in the Hollywood Gold Cup.

The Gold Cup will be run for the 71st time on Saturday, offering its lowest purse in 21 years but still requiring a mile and a quarter on the main track. Synthetics have replaced the glib dirt over which Native Diver won his three Gold Cups, in progressively faster times as he aged. But the task is still formidable, and there are not too many flukes decorating the list of winners.

If there is a horse in the handicap mix these days who can lay claim to even a whiff of Native Diver's legacy it is certainly Rail Trip, who won the 2009 Gold Cup by three lengths at odds of nearly 10-1. Racing for the Jay Em Es Stable of Mace and Samantha Siegel, Rail Trip will defend his title on Saturday, carrying seven more pounds and considerably higher expectations than he did last summer.

The only other horse to win the Gold Cup more than once was Lava Man, the modern-day California hero, who did his thing in 2005, 2006 and 2007. Native Diver won his first of three in 1965, beating a field that included the formidable Hill Rise, winner that year of the Santa Anita Handicap, as well as defending Gold Cup champ Colorado King.

I've still got the program for that day's races, and I swear that's not the trace of a dried teardrop on the page, after the Diver got through smacking my hero Hill Rise silly. Native Diver won by five, under absolute wraps, with long-backed Jerry Lambert sitting cold as a stone. As was his habit, Millerick stayed away from the winner's circle that day, even though he had just won he biggest race of his life.

"There were many, many Busters, and people had a lot of opinions about him," said trainer Kathy Walsh. Millerick died in 1986, at the age of 80.

"Sure, he could be rough and tough," Walsh said. "But he really was a shy guy, very old-fashioned, and very responsive to people.

"Buster hated to fly," Walsh said. "But he made it to my father's funeral in a small town in Washington called Sunnyside. And when he got there he went around town buying up every bunch of flowers he could find, just to make sure there were enough in the church for the service."

Jim Walsh and Buster Millerick trained for years near each other on the Bay Meadows backstretch, so it was only natural that Walsh's young daughter would drift over to Buster's barn.

"With him, it was always the horse who came first," Walsh said. "That's probably why he didn't get along with a lot of owners, and that's the side of Buster you tend to hear about. But if they only knew how much money he left on the backstretch, helping people he knew one-on-one, and how many lives he touched."

When Jim Walsh died, in 1970, Kathy Walsh took over the stable. She was just 30 at the time. Walsh has won more than 1,100 races, along with training titles at Longacres and Canterbury Park.

"Buster was always proud of me for keeping my dad's business going," Walsh said. "He'd call me 'Nancy,' my family nickname, as in, 'Nancy, God dammit, you gotta drop that horse.'"

Not surprisingly, many of Walsh's Millerick memories involved Native Diver, who raced for six solid seasons, beginning in the fall of 1961.

"Buster used to train Native Diver late in the morning at Bay Meadows," Walsh said. "I used to love to ride out on the pony and stand with him at the six-furlong pole while his guy Glenn Moeller was on the black horse. Buster would sit there with the cigar in his mouth, then look up and maybe Native Diver would be clear over at the three-eighths, not doing much.

" 'Well,' Buster would say, 'I guess Glenn's not gonna gallop him today. The black horse doesn't want to train,' " Walsh recalled. "He'd maybe jog him another time around, and that would be it. You learned just by watching how he was observing the horse, and how much time he'd spend around them. He was so beautifully related to the animals, it's just hard to find words to explain it."

Millerick earned his place in the Hall of Fame with horses like Count of Honor, Kissin' George, Fleet Nasrullah, George Lewis and Countess Fleet, but it was Native Diver who put his name in lights, whether he liked it or not, thanks to a career of 81 starts and 37 wins, 34 of them in stakes. Walsh was there at the beginning of the journey.

"Buster sent him up to the old fairgrounds at Sacramento, and he called and asked me to time him the next morning, a black 2-year-old with a white face," Walsh said.

"Well, he jumped out of there with a quarter horse," Walsh said, still amazed at the memory, "and I swear to God that horse left him by 10 lengths. But the black horse caught him, in 21 and four. He looked like he had legs everywhere -- left, right, behind, up by his ears.

"Years later," Walsh added, "I'd hear trainers say that nobody ever did a better job with a horse than Buster did with Native Diver."