12/01/2010 1:47PM

Native Diver, Bayakoa exemplified Hollywood stardom


In a fitting intersection of backstories, the weekend’s stakes at Hollywood Park honor the Thoroughbred Hall of Famers Native Diver and Bayakoa, ripping fast animals who suffered both the glory and consequences of their uncompromising speed.

They were also Hollywood Park mainstays, and for as long as Hollywood Park lasts Native Diver and Bayakoa will occupy significant corners of the track’s history. Native Diver made 31 of his 81 starts at Hollywood, and of his 37 victories, 11 were recorded there. Bayakoa, who came to California from Argentina, raced seven times at Hollywood and won five, all of them stakes.

Native Diver made his first start at Hollywood Park as a 3-year-old in May of 1962, winning the Debonair Stakes. He made his final start there in July of 1967, winning the Hollywood Gold Cup for the third straight year. In between, The Diver took the American Handicap, two runnings of the Los Angeles Handicap, and three runnings of the Inglewood Handicap.

Bayakoa made her American debut at Hollywood Park in May of 1988, winning an allowance race. The following summers she won two Hawthornes, two Miladys, and the Vanity, each of them significant components of Eclipse Award campaigns.

Native Diver’s remains are buried beneath a marker in a corner of the spacious Hollywood Park walking ring behind the grandstand. He died at the age of 8, from colitis. Bayakoa made it to 13 before she fell victim to founder, while her long racing career of 39 starts – 31 of them in the U.S. – afforded her the chance to produce only four foals.

Front-runners like Native Diver and Bayakoa always seem to be playing to the crowd, behaving with a kind of “Hey, look at me” attitude. Both had the advantage of stability at home – Buster Millerick was the only trainer Native Diver ever knew, while Ron McAnally was the only man to handle Bayakoa in the States – where they were given the room to develop unique personalities. The sickle-hocked Native Diver was a demanding sort, even after he was gelded, while Bayakoa was a buck-toothed basket case who eventually fell victim to McAnally’s charms.

“Come over here,” McAnally beckoned one day as Bayakoa hung her head out of the stall with the trainer rubbing her cheek. “Ever feel anything so soft?”

That’s how you deal with a horse too fast for his or her own good. You seduce them, fool them into thinking everything is their idea. Neither Native Diver nor Bayakoa was interested in being rated, reserved, thrown down, or covered up, and when they were seriously hooked, they could lose interest.

Jerry Lambert, with his soft hands and perfect balance, had Native Diver’s number. All they ever needed was to be left alone for a sixteenth or so on the far turn and it was all over. Laffit Pincay, Bayakoa’s best friend, would grab her attention with a quick tug right out of the gate that had a strangely relaxing effect. From that point on Pincay was quiet and the mare moved like liquid.

It is unreasonable to expect such remarkable speed demons who stay a distance of ground to come along too often, which is why Rachel Alexandra at her free-running finest was such a joyous sight to behold. Lesser speed horses – which is just about all the rest – need conditions just right or things will go wrong. Because of this reality, Paddy Gallagher is very glad Aggie Engineer has chilled out enough to ration his natural gifts.

Aggie Engineer is 5-year-old son of E Dubai, owned by his breeders, Ward and Roberta Williford. He has won 5 of 15, with 11 times on the board, which is the way you keep your owners coming back for more. Aggie Engineer enters the Native Diver on Saturday off a smart score on Hollywood’s semi-synthetic main-course during the Oak Tree meet, which puts him in the thick of contention once you get past the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile winner, Dakota Phone.

“He was pretty anxious when he was younger,” Gallagher said. “As he got older he let himself be rated a little more, or maybe he just changed. They’ll do that as they age sometimes. The Bart was that way.”

Gallagher was referring to the talented turf horse of the early 1980s who threw a desperate scare into John Henry in the inaugural running of the Arlington Million. The Bart led every step of the mile and a quarter that day except for the one that put John Henry’s nose on the wire. Gallagher was assistant to The Bart’s trainer, John Sullivan.

“It’s a tough way to go,” Gallagher said of the front-runners game. “There will always be something running at you, whether they’re good enough to stay with you or not.”

Gallagher will be attacking the nine-furlong Native Diver from both ends. While Aggie Engineer will be found on or near the early lead, that will be Soul Candy out the back end, waiting to make the same move that beat Unusual Suspect in the California Cup Classic on Oct. 30.

Soul Candy is a 4-year-old son of Birdonthewire owned by EZ Eight Racing Stable and his breeder, Madera Thoroughbreds. He turned the corner for Gallagher last spring at Hollywood and has been on a steady roll since, with 3 wins and a second in his last 5 starts. In his only finish out of the money during that stretch, Soul Candy tried to give Champ Pegasus a head start of a dozen lengths in the Hirsch Memorial on the Hollywood grass and came up three lengths short.

“The way he’s going, he deserves a chance in there,” Gallagher said. “I wouldn’t say I’ve quite got the race surrounded. But at least I know they both like the track.”