12/09/2004 12:00AM

Memories of white and blue


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Karma doesn't count for much in a horse race. Usually, it takes a fast horse and the right kind of trip. Still, it never hurts to have a little history on your side - or, in the case of Tom Shapiro, an entire era of California racing.

Shapiro's grandfather, Louis K. Shapiro, bred and owned Native Diver. On Saturday at Hollywood Park, Tom Shapiro and his wife, Deborah, will attempt to win the Native Diver Handicap with their homebred 5-year-old Calkins Road.

The Shapiros will gather in the outdoor paddock and pause for a moment at the gravesite of Native Diver, marked by a marble arch that is decorated with a tile mosaic depicting Native Diver's three consecutive victories in the Hollywood Gold Cup. They will greet Jon Court as he enters the walking ring, wearing the family's white silks with the blue dots made famous by Native Diver and his favorite jockey, Jerry Lambert.

Then the hard work starts, when Calkins Road will be asked to shake off the memory of a dull performance in the California Cup Classic at Santa Anita on Oct. 23. His trainer, John Shirreffs, said Calkins Road experienced a significant episode of exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage that day - "four on a scale of five" - which at least helps explain his breathless retreat in the stretch behind Cozy Guy.

It should be noted that Calkins Road doesn't need to be Native Diver to win the Native Diver, although Dynever and Supah Blitz present a considerable challenge. It would help, though, if the Shapiro runner can summon the form of his 3-year-old campaign, during which he won both the Cal Cup Classic and the Snow Chief Stakes, and ran third to Came Home in the Affirmed.

Since those days, Calkins Road has been an in-and-outer, either winning smartly or losing without much of a fight. Native Diver had his bad days as well. It was just that his good days were so brilliant that no one ever held his losses against him.

In a career of 81 starts, spanning seven remarkable seasons, Native Diver won 37 races. Of those, 34 were in stakes, and not just a bunch of intramural California matches, either. The horses Native Diver beat included Candy Spots, Hill Rise, Four-and-Twenty, Physician, Mr. Consistency, Pretense, Sledge, and Viking Spirit. Look 'em up. They could run.

Native Diver was also good to the last drop. In his final start, in September of his 8-year-old season, he carried 130 and equaled the nine-furlong track record in winning the Del Mar Handicap by 3 1/2 lengths. Two weeks later, he was dead from colic.

Californians mourned his passing and vowed Native Diver would never be forgotten. The National Racing Hall of Fame did its part by enshrining Native Diver in 1978, with a plaque on the wall alongside fellow Californians Swaps and Emperor of Norfolk.

"I was able to watch him grow up," said Tom Shapiro, who was 9 when Native Diver was foaled at his grandfather's Canoga Park Ranch, in 1959. "He was just like what everyone said about him - a wild type of colt who had to be gelded if he was ever going to make it to the racetrack. I remember how he held his head high. It was because of an injury, because he was forever running into fences.

"Losing Diver was like losing a member of the family," Shapiro went on. "But he was more than just our horse. He was truly the people's horse. His death made the front of the sports pages. It made the evening news."

Shapiro's teen years were filled with racing. He was at Hollywood Park for all three of Native Diver's Gold Cup victories. At Santa Anita, there were triumphs in the San Carlos, the San Antonio, and the San Pasqual, while at Del Mar Native Diver won the San Diego Handicap in 1963, 1964 and 1965 - that last one in a track record 1:40 for the 1 1/16 miles while under 131 pounds.

Then there was the 1965 Los Angeles Handicap, arguably the greatest seven-furlong race ever run in California, when Native Diver and Viking Spirit went at each other tooth and claw. At the end, it was Diver by a neck in a world-record clocking of 1:20 flat.

"When you are in the crowd, as part of a family who owns a horse like that, and those two horses are out there racing at world-record speeds - it stays with you forever," Shapiro said.

In those days the average Hollywood park crowd topped 34,000. Native Diver played to every seat in the house.

"Do you remember when he'd come out on the racetrack?" Shapiro said. "He would stop, just freeze, and look into the stands. Everybody would cheer, then he move on to another section of the stands, stop again, and that section would cheer louder. Everyone thought Lambert was doing that. No, it was the horse."

Shapiro has no delusions about the task facing Calkins Road on Saturday. Even his very best race may not be enough, but he does have speed and the field is small, which never hurts at any level.

"Now," Shapiro added, "if we could just get the shadow of Native Diver to help him along."