06/27/2007 11:00PM

Native Diver's run hard to top


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - As the Lava Man entourage gathered in the Hollywood Park walking ring prior to his appearance in the recent Whittingham Memorial, a few of the faithful peeled away to pose for photos in front of the imposing marble arch marking the grave of Native Diver.

"Hey," observed the fellow with the camera, "there's a horse who's already won it three times!"

Yes there is, was, and ever shall be. One of only two California-breds in the Thoroughbred racing Hall of Fame, Native Diver won the Hollywood Gold Cup in 1965, 1966, and 1967. The achievement has given some very good horses a significant target over the past 40 years. Yet nothing came close, until 2005 Gold Cup winner Lava Man gutted out his narrow victory over Ace Blue in the 2006 running of the race, setting up Saturday's try for a record-equalling third.

Winning a major stakes event three years running is a big deal, although it's not the biggest deal. Kelso nailed down that honor long ago by taking the two-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup five times, from 1960 through 1964. Forego's four straight Woodwards, 1974 through 1977, comes close, but Kelly still calls the tune.

In addition to the Hollywood Gold Cups, Native Diver took three straight San Diego Handicaps at Del Mar between 1963 and 1965. Because of this, he gets his name mentioned in the same breath as Discovery, who won three straight runnings of both the Brooklyn Handicap and the Whitney Handicap from 1934 to 1936.

Kelso, during his Jockey Club dominance, also won the Woodward in 1961, 1962, and 1963. And there were mares, as well, to reach such repetitive heights - Indian Maid in the Falls City Handicap (1959-61), Flawlessly in the Matriarch (1991-93), Track Gal in the Rancho Bernardo (1995-97), and Azeri in the Apple Blossom (2002-04).

If such feats are not depicted somewhere in stone, they should be, and they are at Hollywood Park, as part of the Native Diver memorial. Spanning the length of the arch, three panels of inlaid mosaic tile offer finish-line images of each of Native Diver's three Gold Cup victories.

The first two find him in splendid isolation - he won the 1965 running by five lengths and the 1966 renewal by 4 3/4. But in the third panel, something's not quite right. There is a horse finishing in front of Native Diver, beating him to the line by about a length. A horse without a rider.

From the middle of his 4-year-old season, in 1963, Native Diver had come to dominate the conversation in California racing. He was a near black, wildly flamboyant speedball who always could be relied upon for some kind of crowd-pleasing antics. When he won, it was with the front-running flair of a breakneck cavalry charge. When he lost, he was a victim of his own excess. As noted by Daily Racing Form's Charles Hatton:

Native Diver "made passionate horse lovers of people who seldom can see the horses for the tote board. Blase sophisticates came to enjoy the familiar and thrilling sight of this tall, racy gelding with the glistening black flanks flashing along at the front of his fields."

Native Diver was the king, topweight in every handicap, favored in the betting, and always the horse to beat. By the time he got to the 1967 Hollywood Gold Cup, however, Native Diver found himself in the awkward and unusual role of underdog.

This reversal of fortune was a result of losing 6 of 7 encounters that year with the 4-year-old Pretense - including a definitive loss in the American Handicap just 11 days earlier. Owned by Liz Tippett and trained by Charlie Whittingham, Pretense wore the black hat in the Gold Cup drama. But sentiment goes only so far. The Gold Cup crowd of 51,664 made Pretense 3-10, while Native Diver went off at odds of nearly 5-1, despite winning the two previous runnings of the race.

The field for the 1967 Gold Cup was small and choice. Besides Native Diver and Pretense, there was Biggs, who upset them both in the Californian, and the classy stayers O'Hara and Quicken Tree. At the start, O'Hara stumbled and dumped Milo Valenzuela. Native Diver and Jerry Lambert shot right to the lead, opening daylight under the line the first time around, while John Sellers and Pretense sat second, haunted on the outside by the riderless O'Hara.

Sellers, who will be joining Native Diver and Whittingham in the Hall of Fame this summer, refused to blame Pretense's defeat that day on the loose horse.

"Around the first turn, O'Hara did come up alongside and kind of got my horse on the bit," Sellers conceded. "With the weight he was carrying, I wanted him to relax, and that certainly didn't help. But in the end, I think it was the weight that got to him."

Pretense, under 131 pounds, pulled within a length of Native Diver, carrying 123, on the turn for home, with O'Hara still in the mix, confusing the issue. As it turned out, that was as close as Sellers could get. Native Diver went on to beat Pretense by five.

"All I really saw was a lot of Native Diver's rear end that day," Sellers added.

Now it's Lava Man's turn to provide the same view.