The Hollywood Gold Cup, a mile and a quarter over one of the swiftest dirt surfaces in the world, has two special things going for it. It is the richest race in the U.S. in the handicap division, and the winner's name goes up alongside those of Seabiscuit, Challedon, Noor, Citation, Two Lea, Swaps, Round Table, Gallant Man and Hillsdale.
For weeks it was odds-on that Saturday's 28th running of the cup, with a gross purse of $162,100, would produce a race of quality and excitement to rival any of its thrilling predecessors. The reason, of course, was that it would bring together the Santa Anita Handicap winner, Pretense, who had already earned $351,850 this season, and Forli, the unbeaten (nine for nine) champion from Argentina. The rest of the field, said most of the smart boys, would show up to squabble over third-and fourth-place money.
Well, there was plenty of excitement at Hollywood Park for the 51,664 who turned out, but it didn't exactly follow the advance billing. Forli stayed in his barn. He was not quite up to 10 furlongs, having lost training time after a firing for splints on June 3. Pretense, to the surprise of those who had sent him off as the 3-to-10 favorite, showed that the burden of 131 pounds was just too much, though he had previously been able to win at the mile-and-a-quarter distance with weights of 118 and 126. The Greentree Stable's O'Hara finished first, but without a jockey, and that doesn't count.
So what caused the excitement? All of it on this beautiful, hot summer day was provided by a cocky, 8-year-old brown gelding by the name of Native Diver. Carrying 123 pounds, including Jockey Jerry Lambert, Native Diver turned in one of the most sensational races ever. It may have lacked the heart-thumping quality of a Buckpasser finish or the last-to-first kind of run that propelled Carry Back to fame, but it will take a place of honor in racing history because of the old boy's courageous performance.
A son of Imbros out of the Devil Diver mare Fleet Diver, Native Diver is owned by Mr. and Mrs. Lou K. Shapiro, who are really more devoted to harness horses than to Thoroughbreds. He led all the way, simply murdering his field in the process, and no 8-year-old in the world could have done it any faster. Opening up four lengths over Pretense almost immediately, Native Diver ticked off six furlongs in 1:09 2/5 on his way to a mile in 1:34. He hit 1:46 l/5 for a mile and an eighth and finished the classic cup distance in 1:58 4/5, five lengths ahead of Pretense. The time was only a fifth of a second off the track record, set by Swaps as a 4-year-old in 1956, and three-fifths slower than Noor's world record of 1:58 1/5. Many eastern racing people who have never seen Native Diver will call this fantastic. But it was not entirely unexpected among West Coast horse fans. For Native Diver is, in a manner of speaking, the local heavyweight champion. In his only trip across the Rockies, to Chicago, he was a flop, but at home he is almost unbeatable.
Native Diver was so clumsy and uncoordinated as a yearling on the Shapiro ranch at Canoga Park, Calif. that it was difficult for him to walk. He was a headstrong, fractious fence-runner, and he fell down so often that he finally injured his back. Then he was gelded, and the picture began to change. Last week he became the first California-bred to enter the select millionaires' club. His purse of $102,100 brought his earnings to $1,002,850, putting him seventh on the all-time list, in the company of Kelso, Round Table, Buckpasser, Nashua, Carry Back and Citation. Even more remarkable is the fact that of the 36 races the Diver has won in his 80 lifetime starts 33 have been in stakes. He first tried the Gold Cup as a 4-year-old in 1963 and finished fourth. The next year he was third. In 1965 he won it, with 124 pounds. Last year he repeated, with 126 pounds. And last week was the third in a row. Each time he ran faster than the year before. How many times has any horse won a mile-and-a-quarter handicap—no matter what the opposition—three years in a row?
All this might lead the racing fraternity to expect that some time before the year is out Native Diver will journey east and challenge Buckpasser. "No," says Shapiro, "he's a California horse and he'll stay here and race here as long as he has the class to compete in handicaps. When he gets past his peak he'll have a wonderful pasture all to himself. He has brought us thrills beyond what you could value in dollars, and we're not looking to challenge the world."
Although a big loser in the Gold Cup, Mrs. Cloyce Tippett's Pretense may have had an excuse. At the start of this five-horse race O'Hara stumbled and unseated Milo Valenzuela. Riderless, O'Hara ran most of the way in second place along with Pretense. Pretense's rider, John Sellers, was polite enough to say later that O'Hara did not bother him, but a riderless animal is always a harassment to every other jockey in the field. Even though he may not cause a clear case of interference, the threat prevents jockeys from planning moves and executing them precisely when they want to. Pretense is still a very fine colt and will go back East to try to prove it against Buck-passer, who at the moment rules alone at the top of the handicap division.
And what of Forli? He is going to Arlington Park in Chicago and, if successful there, will show up at Aqueduct this fall. "I could have taken a chance and run him in the Gold Cup," said Charlie Whittingham, who trains Forli for Arthur (Bull) Hancock, "but he wasn't quite at his best, and if he gets beat I want him to be at his best. When you run them at a disadvantage, that's when you get your horses hurt. But don't give up on Forli. He's gotten a lot of publicity without doing anything much in this country yet, but, believe me, he's one of the very best. If he does well in Chicago, I hope we'll prove it to everyone in New York. I'm only sorry we couldn't show these people in California how good he really is."
Wouldn't it be nice to go to Aqueduct for the mile-and-a-quarter Woodward on Sept. 30th and find a field that includes Buckpasser, Pretense and Forli? And how about some 3-year-old representation from Damascus, Dr. Fager (both of whom won again last week) and Tumble Wind (who won the Hollywood Derby), and maybe even a rein-vigorated Kentucky Derby winner, Proud Clarion? None of this is impossible, but for the moment the honors belong to 8-year-old Native Diver. He danced for the crowd in the paddock before the Hollywood Gold Cup and paraded proudly after the race. He doesn't have to make the Woodward; he's already won his place in racing annals.