02/28/2002 12:00AM

Shapiro following trail his grandfather blazed

Email

ARCADIA, Calif. - Many of Tom Shapiro's favorite childhood memories center around California's most popular racehorse of the 1960's.

Shapiro is the grandson of Louis K. Shapiro, who owned Native Diver. As a teenager, Tom was a first-hand witness to the career of Native Diver, the three-time winner of the Hollywood Gold Cup and one of the greatest Cal-breds.

Nearly 35 years later, Tom Shapiro is following his grandfather as a breeder and owner. Shapiro campaigns a small stable with his wife, Debbie, and they own a small farm in the Santa Ynez Valley.

Shapiro admits his grandfather's success makes him a tough act to follow.

"It's hard when your grandfather accomplished what he did," Shapiro said. "I think we have a ways to go."

At their own level, the Shapiros are fully immersed in their racing and breeding operations. Their breeding operation includes a few mares based in Kentucky and California. The racing stable is led by Calkins Road, the winner of a maiden race for California-breds on Feb. 7, who starts in Saturday's $200,000 San Rafael Stakes at Santa Anita.

The colors that will be worn by jockey Laffit Pincay Jr. on Calkins Road are the same as those of Shapiro's grandfather.

"Seeing those polka-dotted silks in the winner's circle was a great feeling," Tom Shapiro said after the Feb. 7 race. "It was very exciting for us."

The win by Calkins Road was especially sweet for the Shapiros because they bred him. "It wasn't a stakes but it felt like one to us," Tom Shapiro said.

On that afternoon, Shapiro was greeted in the winner's circle with cell phone calls from his college-aged children, who attend USC and George Washington.

"This is his favorite horse," Debbie Shapiro said while her husband spoke on the phone. "This is his baby."

The foundation of Tom Shapiro's interest in racing came through his relationship with his grandfather.

Louis Shapiro claimed Fleet Diver, the dam of Native Diver, for $3,500 in January 1954. Five years later, she foaled Native Diver, who was by Imbros, a son of Polynesian.

Trained by Buster Millerick, Native Diver won 37 of 81 starts and $1,026,500, but was never elected champion.

Tom Shapiro has vivid memories of those days, particularly the determination showed by Native Diver. One fond memory was the 1965 Los Angeles Handicap at Hollywood Park. Carrying 126 pounds, Native Diver took a clear early lead, but was quickly caught by Viking Spirit. The pair ran as a team on the final turn and through the stretch, with Native Diver winning by a neck. The final time for the seven furlongs was 1:20, a world record at the time.

"It was like a match race," Shapiro said. "One horse was black, one was chestnut. You couldn't separate them. It looked like we were beaten and he came back on. The other horse didn't quit."

During a career highighted by the Hollywood Gold Cup wins in 1965-67, Native Diver was overshadowed on a national scale by horses such as Damascus and Buckpasser. But in California, Native Diver, the first California-bred millionaire, was a star with a following.

"When you win three Gold Cups, that's a great memory," Shapiro said. "I was 16 when he won the third Gold Cup. It was great. I was fully old enough to understand all of that."

Shapiro gained early experience at his grandfather's farm.

"Our grandparents had a farm we went to every summer," he recalled. "Buster Millerick was one of my childhood idols. I used to spend my summers walking hots."

Tom Shapiro's father, Marvin, was president of Western Harness, which operated race meetings at Hollywood Park. In the 1980's, Tom Shapiro drove harness horses on the California circuit - Cal-Expo in Sacramento, Hollywood Park, and Los Alamitos - but eventually gave up the sport.

"The family was out of racing for awhile," Tom Shapiro said.

Shapiro, 51, owns a tent and canvas company based in Los Angeles. The company recently provided 700,000 square feet of structures for the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

When the company began to do well, Tom Shapiro turned his attention back to horse racing. "It took awhile to get in a position to do this," he said.

Initially, Tom and Debbie Shapiro concentrated on breeding, but in the last year they have become more active with their small racing stable, which is trained by John Shirreffs.

Their first horse, Tara's Best, is Calkins Road's granddam. Belle of Pride gave them their first winner last year at Hollywood Park, and another of their horses, Continental Colors, was recently retired and will be bred to California sire Unusual Heat.

"She retired due to the slows," Shapiro said of Continental Colors.

Little Code, the dam of Calkins Road, resides at the Shapiros' Rocking Horse Ranch in Los Olivos, which includes 10 acres and is home to five broodmares. The Ranch is located on Calkins Road.

"The pressure is on," Debbie Shapiro said, joking about Calkins Road in the San Rafael. "He'd better win."

Calkins Road is by Illinois Storm, whose book will include Little Code again this year. Last year, Illinois Storm was represented by Georgia's Storm, the winner of the Landaluce Stakes.

"I was breeding to Pirate's Bounty and wasn't getting many in foal," Tom Shapiro said, explaining why he bred Little Code to Illinois Storm. "Illinois Storm was a son of Storm Cat right here in the valley. He was 10 minutes away."

Calkins Road is not considered a Kentucky Derby candidate - at least not so far. The Shapiros and Shirreffs are focusing on running him in the $250,000 Snow Chief Stakes over 1 1/8 miles for California-bred 3-year-olds at the end of April.

"He's been my favorite since the day he was born," Tom Shapiro said.

The timing and distance of the Snow Chief Stakes is convenient. If a 3-year-old develops quickly through the spring, there is always the more prominent race on the first Saturday of May at Churchill Downs to keep in mind.

"He looks better and better every day," Sherriffs said of Calkins Road. "Every day, we like him more. [Pincay] Laffit said he won with a lot left in the tank."

Shirreffs said the current plan remains the Snow Chief Stakes, but even he is allowing himself to dream of greater things.

"It could be a fall-back position," he said of the Snow Chief.

For Tom Shapiro, the colt is already a star, and a connection to the time he spent with his grandfather.