12/07/2005 12:00AM

Native Diver can't rest in peace

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - In honoring Native Diver on Saturday with the 27th running of the race that carries his name, Hollywood Park management risks the threat of widespread melancholy by reminding its customers of the way things used to be.

Native Diver, a foal of 1959, was nothing like any Thoroughbred at work today. He was bred and raised in California, but by contemporary standards he might as well have been thawed from a prehistoric age or dropped onto the Hollywood backstretch, fully formed, by a Martian starcruiser.

Beginning in September 1961, Native Diver raced 81 times and won 37 races at distances ranging from six to 10 furlongs. He carried weight, as was the custom of the age, including eight major stakes in which the assignment was 130 pounds or more.

Of his 37 wins, 34 of them came in stakes events, a dizzy total recognized as an American record. By the time he reached the end of the line in the 1967 Del Mar Handicap, Native Diver had competed in 72 consecutive stakes events.

Whenever he set forth under the colors of L.K. Shapiro, his breeder and owner, Native Diver drew an extra rank of fans to the ballpark, much the same way Nolan Ryan or Sandy Koufax packed them in when their turn came up in the rotation. Wiry and almost black, with a defiant slash of a blaze, "The Diver" was a bona fide celebrity with a trademark style, a horse who left the gate like a scalded cat and dared the opposition to play his breakaway game. Win or lose, Native Diver always had something to say about the outcome.

One of his biggest fans and camp followers was Richard Shapiro, one of L.K. Shapiro's five grandchildren. On July 18, 1964, the young Shapiro was on the scene with his parents when Native Diver won the first of his three straight Hollywood Gold Cups. On May 22, 1965, Shapiro was at Hollywood to witness Native Diver defeat Viking Spirit by a neck and equal the seven-furlong world record in the Los Angeles Handicap. And on Sept. 4, 1967, the 14-year-old Richard Shapiro took his first small-craft plane ride from West L.A. to Del Mar with his grandparents to watch Native Diver win his third straight Del Mar Handicap, coming within a tick of the nine-furlong world record in the process. Less than a week later, Native Diver was dead, a victim of colic. He was later buried at Hollywood Park.

Last week, after two years as a commissioner, that same Richard Shapiro was elected chairman of the California Horse Racing Board, a position of unenviable responsibility that puts a big red bull's-eye on whomever wears the title.

Shapiro, however, is welcoming the challenge. Although still heavily involved in his company, Winco Real Estate, he plans to spend the time it takes to make a difference, and he has pledged to devote his tenure to the resurrection of the sport in California - if not to the glory days of Native Diver, then at least to a reasonable, modern-day facsimile.

As someone who experienced those glory days firsthand, Shapiro speaks for a large segment of Californians - both horsemen and fans - who feel betrayed by the people and corporations who have presided over the industry's decline. More recently, the issues of drug testing and jockey weights have occupied his attention. But now, as chairman, Shapiro gets to focus on his own agenda, and at the top of Shapiro's concerns is the way the sport is presented by the operators of state's racetracks.

"We hold jockeys accountable, trainers accountable, all licensees," Shapiro said. "Why shouldn't racetracks be held accountable in the same way?

"My allegiance is always to the game," Shapiro went on. "My view is that the engine that drives the game is the owners, and we are losing owners in droves. That must be reversed.

"So if I see someone isn't helping the game, moving it forward, I'm going to be an outspoken critic," he added. "And if I offend some people, frankly I don't care. We cannot let racing associations or corporate America dictate how racing is going to be. If people aren't going to invest in the future of racing in California, then they shouldn't be here. Let them leave."

One corporation, Churchill Downs Inc., has already abandoned California by selling Hollywood Park. The purchaser was Bay Meadows Land Co., which pledged only three years of operation unless certain legislative incentives and legalized slot machines were granted.

For his part, Shapiro is already looking past the day when Hollywood Park's current owners abandon horse racing and develop the acreage into a retail and residential site. He is not only determined to do what he can to make sure the industry does not sustain permanent damage from such a trauma, he is also concerned about the impact on his family legacy.

Saturday, the Shapiros will gather at the Hollywood Park paddock and spend a moment at the Native Diver memorial in the east end of the walking ring, then later crown the winner of the Native Diver Handicap.

"As soon as the sale of Hollywood came up, I told them my family wanted the right to relocate Native Diver's remains, and the monument," Shapiro said. "I have a letter granting that wish. And I'm sure either Del Mar or Santa Anita would love to have him."