02/21/2014 3:14PM

Jay Hovdey: Moving day coming soon for Native Diver

Benoit & Associates
Native Diver's remains were buried under this monument at Hollywood Park. They will be moved to Del Mar, where a new monument will be built.

Of all the loose ends left by the closure of Hollywood Park, none has generated more attention than the remains of the great Native Diver. A California-bred winner of three Hollywood Gold Cups in the mid-1960s and member of Thoroughbred racing’s Hall of Fame, Native Diver was buried in what eventually became the walking ring behind the grandstand, beneath an imposing monument.

Richard Shapiro, the grandson of Native Diver’s owner and breeder, Louis K. Shapiro, has become involved with the efforts of exhumation on behalf of the family. On Thursday, he had the opportunity to observe the first tentative exploration of the site. Based on reports that Native Diver’s remains were not buried directly beneath the monument, or that the monument had been moved at some point, he was ready for anything, including complete frustration.

“Look, I have in a trunk at home the rundown patches he wore in his races – the little rubber patches they put on his heels,” Shapiro said before the digging started. “I have hair from his tail. Who knows, that may be more than we’re able to find down there.

“But whether fragments of his bones are found there, to me, is not that important. That is not his soul down there. Those are remains. What is important is that he be honored at a racetrack somewhere.”

On Thursday, under the supervision of Hollywood Park general manager Eual Wyatt, a small crew assembled beneath the trees at the east end of the Hollywood paddock.

“So they dug beneath the monument,” Shapiro said. “At six feet down there was nothing. I figured, ‘Okay, he’s not there.’

“Then we got to eight feet, and there was a bone fragment. At that point we stopped using the backhoe and carefully began moving the dirt around by hand. That’s when we found four ribs. And that’s when we stopped. Now that we know where he is, he will be exhumed in a very careful, methodical manner. The site was secured with a fence and the hole was covered for protection.”

The Shapiro family has agreed to an original memorial for Native Diver at Del Mar that will incorporate elements of the Hollywood monument, including the tile mosaic by artist Millard Sheets depicting Native Diver’s three victories in the Hollywood Gold Cup, and the replica of the Gold Cup trophy that topped the Hollywood site.

As far as the Native Diver legend, however, there was never a place on the California landscape he did not grace with his exciting, free-wheeling style. Of his 80 starts in the state (37 wins, 34 in stakes), he made 31 at Hollywood Park, 20 at Santa Anita, 11 at Golden Gate, eight at Del Mar and five each at Bay Meadows and Tanforan. In his only start outside California, Native Diver was unplaced in the 1965 Washington Park Handicap at Arlington Park, under top weight of 128 pounds.

Tanforan, Bay Meadows, and now Hollywood Park are gone, while the site of Golden Gate seems to be periodically up for sale. That leaves only Del Mar and Santa Anita, which already is replete with statuary honoring a variety of racing personalities.

Del Mar, on the other hand, is practically barren when it comes to three-dimensional racing art. There are those lawn jockeys in the walking ring, painted each year in the colors of the owners who win the Del Mar Futurity, Del Mar Debutante, and Pacific Classic. Patrons entering the track grounds from the main parking lot are greeted by the looming statue of actor Tommy Hernandez in his role as Don Diego, the official greeter of the Del Mar Fair from 1947 until his death in 1984.

Otherwise, the most noteworthy contribution Del Mar has made to the public display of racing art is the imposing mural created by Pierre “Peb” Bellocq adorning a wall inside the clubhouse entrance. If Peb missed a face important to the history of the track, no one has noticed.

Native Diver made the mural, along with his trainer, Buster Millerick, and his jockey, Jerry Lambert. The black horse walked his beat at Del Mar in the 1964 San Diego Handicap, winning by four lengths, and in the 1965 San Diego, winning by 3 1/2 while carrying 131 pounds. In 1967, at age 8, Native Diver set a track record for nine furlongs while winning the Del Mar Handicap under 130 pounds. Nine days later, after shipping to Northern California for more racing, he was dead from colic.

Now, after more than 46 years in the ground, the earthly remains of the great horse will be on the move. Richard Shapiro was a teenage racing fan when Native Diver died.

“Just looking at those ribs, I was surprised at their condition,” Shapiro said. “And there was no doubt. It was a real wow. If there is anything else like the rib cage it will be something.

“I know what I said before, that it didn’t matter if we found any remains. I guess I was just getting ready for disappointment. But when I saw what we found it really hit me. All the memories came back, of what the horse meant to racing and what he meant to our family.”