Following the closure of Hollywood Park, the only horse remaining in track's walking ring is one who had been in the ground for 46 years. Native Diver, often heralded as the West Coast's Kelso, was brought to rest there after dying suddenly from a bout of colic. After the track closed on Dec. 22, officials made the decision to move the horse's remains to Del Mar, but activists say that isn't the end of the story.
Native Diver was one of only a handful of runners that were buried at Hollywood Park. A dark-coated, nearly black gelding, he was bred for sprints but trained for distance by Buster Millerick. The combination proved lethal for competitors, who could not catch his early speed or outlast his seemingly endless endurance. A homebred for Mr. and Mrs. Louis K. Shapiro, Native Diver claimed 37 victories in his 81-race career, including three straight Hollywood Gold Cups.
Diver had a fiery temperament to match his spirit on the track and was known to be a poor shipper.
“He was very explosive, and he had that type of personality to be around,” recalled Tom Shapiro, grandson of Louis K. Shapiro. “It was his way in the stall. He would stand in the corner and ignore you—he would do what he wanted to do.”
After equaling a track record in the 1967 Del Mar Handicap, Diver was struck by colic and was transported to the University of California-Davis, where he died. The horse was buried in the walking ring at Hollywood the next day, at a time when no one could imagine that the track might one day close its doors.
As Hollywood Park prepared to run its last race last December, the Shapiros contacted Del Mar officials, who agreed to transfer Native Diver's remains to the Del Mar infield. Upon Hollywood's demolition of its grandstand, Del Mar crews will attempt to move the graveside monument (if it is not too heavy for transport) and plan to locate the horse's remains with heavy machinery in a few weeks.
A small group of concerned Native Diver fans say, however, that the project is not as simple as digging around with a backhoe.
Charlotte Farmer, retired executive secretary and longtime race fan, has been advocating for the use of archaeologists in Diver's move to Del Mar. Farmer, a longtime Native Diver devotee, has been involved in one other horse exhumation. When Loma Rica Ranch — the site of Noor's grave — was slated for development, Farmer led the project to dig up his remains, and she drove them in a pickup truck to Old Friends Equine in Central Kentucky.
When Farmer embarked on the task of moving Noor, she learned that exhuming an entire horse took an expert's eye. She eventually met archaeologist Erin Dwyer of the California Department of Parks and Recreation, who assisted in the dig to lift as much of Noor's remains as possible.
Thanks to Dwyer's expertise, Farmer learned that after almost a half-century in the ground, only a horse's teeth and shoes will be intact.
“The bone, it's almost hard to see sometimes,” said Dwyer. “Often you'll find a piece of bone, and it kind of looks like a piece of wood or rock sometimes. It's not like a cow bone you find when you're walking a pasture—it's not like, white. It's the color of the dirt now. You often have to put it up to your tongue—bone sticks and rock doesn't, because bone is porous.”
Dwyer's expert eye might detect a change in the soil compaction, signifying a
ground disturbance from decades before. Her preferred method for removing Native Diver includes a toothless backhoe that could remove the soil above the grave, followed by shallow scrapes until she discovered bone fragments. Then, she would direct the crew to “pedestal” the remains, digging a trench around the edges of the grave to expose the edges of Diver's skeleton. Screens could be used to remove the remains from the soil and ensure bits of the horse aren't left behind.
If only the largest bones of the horse are moved to Del Mar, the project would be what's called “a symbolic lift,” acknowledging that the horse is symbolically in one place but technically split between two or more sites.
For those surrounding the Diver saga, a proper exhumation is also about respect for the horse, and in a way, making up for lost ceremony. Native Diver was given none of the pomp of previous champions like Man o' War, whose burial was accompanied by a memorial service and flowers. Native Diver's death was a sudden one, so both L.K. Shapiro and his son were out of town and unable to say goodbye.
Biff Lowry was an official with the Western Harness Racing Association at that time and is, as far as he knows, the only living person who was at Diver's grave that day in 1967.
“Tom Shapiro wanted to go watch Native Diver be buried and I talked him out of it. I told him he wanted to remember the horse as the fiery, snorting, winningest steed that he was,” recalled Lowry.
Lowry, then 40, recalls arriving at the scene to find the great horse wrapped in
a canvas bag and propped up on a loader. A hole was dug and the three-time Hollywood Gold Cup winner was dropped in. When he landed, Lowry heard a loud, echoing crack, which he assumed was the animal's spine breaking on impact.
“I just kind of turned away,” he said.
Lowry was the only person in attendance who wasn't part of the Hollywood grounds staff.Lowry's recollections could help archaeologists if they are permitted to unearth Diver. For one thing, the fact that the horse was contained in a bag may make it easier to remove as much of his remains as possible. Although the bag has surely disintegrated, it likely kept the bones in one place for as long as it held together.
Lowry also remembered that the monument eventually erected to Diver's memory was not directly over the grave and may be as far as 30 yards away from where the horse was actually buried, which could make the process of finding him even more challenging.
Farmer recalled that when she assisted with the relocation of Noor's remains, the horse wasn't anywhere near the spot he was supposed to be buried, and it took the better part of a day before Dwyer and her crew found him. These days, official archaeological digs are equipped with radar sensors that can find solid objects under the earth, but such sensors are expensive to rent.
It remains ambiguous, too, just how far down the horse was buried; it's likely the grave is at least six to seven feet down, but it may be as much as ten feet.
Somewhere in the middle of the logistics, decomposition rates, and digging strategies, what's left of Native Diver is waiting.
“I get the impression they think they're going to find the horse with a lot of bones intact,” said Farmer. “If they don't do it right, they've got one shot. And if they don't do it right, he's going to be lost to the ages.
“They need to do right by the horse. He deserves it.”
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