12/06/2007 12:00AM

Saturday's stakes rooted in history

EmailINGLEWOOD, Calif. - The Native Diver Handicap at Hollywood Park on Saturday honors the memory of the near black gelding who won the Hollywood Gold Cup in 1965, 1966, and 1967. Native Diver is one of only two California-bred runners to be elected to the racing Hall of Fame - Swaps is the other - and his remains are buried beneath a marble memorial at the north end of the Hollywood Park walking ring.

So far, none of the 28 Native Diver winners has rivaled the accomplishments of Native Diver, whose career lasted seven years and included 33 stakes wins, although Best Pal (1994), Alphabet Soup (1995), and Gentlemen (1996) gave it a pretty good try. On Saturday, Buzzards Bay, Bold Chieftain, Arson Squad, and Ravel will try to follow in those very large footsteps. A trophy with Native Diver's name on it would look good on any mantel.

Hollywood Park is not the only track dipping into a golden corner of its past Saturday. At Woodbine, where it is snowing, the Sir Barton Stakes will be run for the 33rd time. In 1919, Sir Barton was the first winner of the Triple Crown before anyone knew it was called the Triple Crown - he was grandfathered into the club after Gallant Fox swept the Derby, Preakness, and Belmont 11 years later - and although he was bred in Kentucky, he was owned by Commodore John Kenneth Levenson Ross, a Canadian war hero, sportsman, and coal mining executive.

Only two of Sir Barton's 31 starts took place in Canada. He won the Dominion Handicap in August 1920 at Fort Erie and then, two months later, lost a two-horse race in the Kenilworth Gold Cup. The other horse was Man o' War.

Saturday's Geisha Handicap at Laurel Park is a $60,000 main-track event at nine furlongs designed for fillies and mares bred in Maryland. Beyond that, they could aspire to the reputation of Geisha herself, but good luck. Geisha was a daughter of Discovery, foaled in 1943, who won only 1 of her 11 starts. Her son, Native Dancer, lost only 1 of his 22 starts, and even though that loss came in the Kentucky Derby, he was long ago forgiven.

In a similar vein Saturday, Turfway Park is offering the 20th running of the My Charmer Stakes for fillies and mares at 1 1/16 miles on Polytrack. My Charmer, a daughter of Poker, was good enough to win 6 of 32 starts in just two years of racing. In 1972, she won the Fair Grounds Oaks. In 1973, she was bred to Bold Reasoning, and in 1974 she gave birth to the colt who sold for $17,500 as a yearling and then decided to become Seattle Slew.

It would be nice to say that the Buffalo Bayou Stakes at Sam Houston Park on Saturday was christened for the Texas-bred bottom-rung claimer of the same name who lost all six of his races at Sam Houston Park. There was also a Buffalo Bayou who raced in Maryland in the 1980s, but Timonium was as close as he ever got to the Astrodome.

Nope, the Buffalo Bayou is named for a big ol' Houston park, 124 acres worth, complete with a real bayou, two cemeteries, a golf course, and a Henry Moore sculpture. Seven are set to run in the Buffalo Bayou, including favored Smooth Bid, a son of Rubiano. Pedigree nuts will note - without Geisha there would have been no Rubiano.

It's also safe to say that without Pat Whitworth and Hank Mills Sr., the racing game in Illinois and Arizona would have suffered. Whitworth tirelessly served the racing patrons of her state as secretary/treasurer of the Illinois Thoroughbred Breeders and Owners Foundation. Her contributions are honored once again Saturday with the $100,000 Pat Whitworth Illinois Debutante for 2-year-old fillies.

On the same day, Turf Paradise will present the first running of the Hank Mills Sr. Handicap at a mile on the main track. Nine have entered, including California stakes winner Cheroot, and they'd better leave the gate as a team. Mills was Turf Paradise official starter for the first 40 years of its 51-year history.

"If there was an Arizona racing hall of fame, Hank should be a charter member," said Eugene Joyce, Turf Paradise general manager. "He meant so much to this track, and he was a horseman through and through. Did you know he also won the Jockey Club Gold Cup?"

Had to look that one up, and there he is, 18-year-old Hank Mills, under contract to Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons and the Wheatley Stable, winning the 1933 running of the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park aboard Dark Secret, beating Gusto and Equipoise. The previous year, Mills made Time magazine for his riding exploits, described as having "a joint bank account with his 11-year-old sister in which he deposits most of the $35 a month and 10 percent of prizes which he gets from the Wheatley Stables."

"He rode against the likes of Eddie Arcaro, Georgie Woolf, and John Longden," said Hank Mills Jr., a Turf Paradise steward. "He was also scheduled to ride Omaha, but something came up and they took him off."

Maybe it was for the best. If Hank Mills had been aboard Omaha in 1935, he would have won the Triple Crown, and who knows where that would have led? Probably Arizona.