Dust to Dust: Exhuming Native Diver From Hollywood Park

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The Native Diver monument at Hollywood Park The Native Diver monument at Hollywood Park

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.

Native_Diver-big

Native Diver won three consecutive Hollywood Gold Cups from 1965 to 1967

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.

Native_Diver

In 1965, Native Diver equaled the world record of 1:20 for seven furlongs in the Los Angeles Handicap

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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  • TomC.

    This sounds like a good time for all to take a step back, slow down and be prudent. The very recent purchase of the 67 acres of the Hollywood Park Tomorrow project property (yes, they included the then Walmart owned property in their plans) by the St. Louis Rams owner Kroenke (8th largest developer in the world married to the Walmart heiress) may have put at the very least a question mark on the plan for 3000 homes, etc. Will they pursue an NFL or a soccer stadium? Either way, big changes are coming in both plans. Let’s leave Native Diver be until the dust settles. The City of Inglewood has been playing both sides of late. Who wants to buy a $600,000 home where a 24-hour casino, an off track betting facility and a stadium are located? and where the school system has been disbanded…just sayin’

    • Quilla

      Changes in the land can go on without Native Diver ~ he needs to be moved now.

      • LaraH2

        why? changes in the land can go on with native diver there. we pave over native american burial grounds that are rife with religious spirituality with no compunction. i don’t see the importance of a horse over those human graves. i love horses, but does moving the body seem a good way to honour a horse? perhaps moving the memorial would suffice. dust to dust is right. let him be to become part of the earth where he was buried.

        • Quilla

          This is why: “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.”

    • Bobf

      That place is going to sit dormant for a long time. They won’t build anything for the next 3 to 5 years.

      If in fact a stadium does go up there, that sure does seem like a small problem for this grand development they have planned. I wouldn’t pay $600K for a house on the same property as football stadium. In fact, I wouldn’t pay $600k to live in Inglewood. BTW, you are also under the flight path of LAX. I am still wondering where they are going to find these buyers.

      I still don’t understand how something that costs $8 billion to build that won’t have one tenant for about 5 years can end up being profitable for investors while shutting down a business that was making money is good business. I guess my college degree isn’t advanced enough for me to understand how it works.

      • Tonto

        changing the attraction will not change the neighborhood- last time I raced there you were afraid to leave the grounds after dark, and pretty careful in the barn area. 60 years ago Inglewood was a lovely place- now not so much.

  • Stephanie

    Does the University of California have an archaeological school that could help in the removal? This could be a pretty good experience for the students.

    • Kris

      Outstanding suggestion, Stephanie. Someone should give UCLA a call.

  • Ron Hale

    When Native Diver was buried, his grave and later monument were not in the walking ring, but in the grandstand gardens, among the fans who so loved him. It was years later when R. D. Hubbard added the walking ring to that area and made the monument the center point.

    Also many horses, including the stakes horses from the early 1960′s — Ronnie’s Ace and Mr. America — are buried on the other side of the track along side of the parking lot and the area where the fence separates it from the barn area. What happened to them?

    I was at Hollywood Park the day Native Diver was buried. I heard on KMPC News that he had been quickly buried, so I rushed over there in the afternoon. There was just a huge pile of dirt above the ground where he was buried. A really sad sight. One of my greatest thrills was seeing Native Diver beat Pretense in the Hollywood Gold Cup two months earlier.

    • Vickie

      WOW – so he is no where near the monument?

    • Charlotte Farmer

      Ron ~ Do you think if you returned to Hollypark you could identify the location?

  • Milt Toby

    Great article, Natalie! I did extensive interviews with Charlotte Farmer, Erin Dwyer, and Denise Jaffke (another archaeologist who assisted with the exhumation of Noor’s remains at Loma Rica) for my book , Noor: A Champion Thoroughbred’s Unlikely Journey from California to Kentucky. Locating a horse’s remains and retrieving them after all these years is not as easy as it might sound. I hope the Native Diver effort has people as dedicated as Charlotte, Erin, and Denise on the team.

  • Glimmerglass

    I’m glad there is interest and more attention to detail with accomplishing this solemn task.

    One certainly hopes those involved won’t screw up as royally as they did with Triple Crown winner Omaha. They never relocated his remains on Ak-Sar-Ben – just the memorial marker. As to where he was actually buried, relative to the development created after 1996, remains a mystery.

  • Francis Bush

    Its sad to remove this horse’s remains from a track that should never have closed. It was a splendid track and a splendid horse. Why Del Mar? Santa Anita would have been a better site

  • MyBigRed

    “They need to do right by the horse. He deserves it.”
    I Second the Motion !!

  • Roger Maris

    I hope all of you feel the same way when a “development” is to incorporate existing land which includes a cemetery (HUMAN)?

  • Chantal Smithless

    I think the care and planning of all of this is a tribute to the wonderful horse Native Diver was and to the joy he brought to so many people. I really enjoyed this article and hope that we will be kept updated at to the progress of this endeavor. Thank you to all involved in making sure The Diver is never forgotten!

  • M. A. Thrope

    One would think that, considering all the money the horse won, somebody could have sprung for a casket/coffin/wooden box.

    • Kris

      From what I understand, Ruffian was buried in a similar fashion.

      • M. A. Thrope

        Even sadder.

  • hadiranmarcus

    Here’s hoping the Hollywood Park authorities do a better job exhuming Native Diver than they did running their track.

  • Charlotte Farmer

    Having dug up a horse that had been dead for 36 years I can say with a certainty, Noor wrote the book on how to do it the “right way.” I have spoken with Biff Lowry on several occasions; he was there the day Diver was returned from U. C. Davis, in a body bag, and unceremoniously dumped in a large hole. Diver has been in the ground 46 years; like a soufflé as he decomposed the bag and Diver would have slowly compacted to just around 1’ in width, which Erin and I have discussed and both agree.

    With absolute certainty I can say that unless there is an archeologist on-site during the excavation Diver will probably be lost to the ages. The average citizen would not have a clue what they were looking at i.e. soil content. If it hadn’t been for Erin I would have removed swamp fill thinking it was Noor and taken it back to Old Friends.

    Can he be found? Yes! To Ron Hale I would ask, if you returned to Hollypark do you think you could point out the location of Diver’s grave? If Ron can, then using Ground Penetrating Radar Diver can be located. Even if he cannot there are ways.

    There is an archeological team that is willing, free of charge, to help with this endeavor. I would encourage the public to contact Mr. Liebau and Mr. Wyatt of Hollypark and ask if they have a plan on “how to remove the remains of Native Diver,” and would they be willing to share that information with the public.

    Last but far from least Diver needs to be move. Where is the honor in leaving a horse that we know can be recovered to fall to “urban sprawl?” Native Diver never received the accolades he so rightly deserved in death; and given that he was always getting mixed up with the great Native Dancer he became lost to only those of us who are old enough and remember “Lightning in a Bottle,” He deserves our support and any effort made on his behalf to recover him; he gave us so much joy as we watched him burn up the tracks with his legendary jockey Jerry Lambert. During the tumultuous 1960’s two geldings dominated the world of thoroughbred racing, the mighty Kelso on the east coast and California’s own Native Diver.

  • swiss305

    How about Landaluce? Isn’t she buried at Hollywood Park?

  • Charlotte Farmer

    Landaluce and Great Communicator were both buried at Hollpark. Landaluce was cremated and only Great Communicator’s heart was buried. It is my understanding tht Luce’s remains have headed for Spendthrift Farm where she was bred and Communicator’s heart will reside with Old Friends.

  • equine avenger

    The closing of Hollywood Park only shows the current sad state of thoroughbred racing in America. There are literally dozens of other tracks which would also be closed if not for casino money. It’s unfortunate what the greedy have done to this once great game.

  • Tonto

    It is an under statement to say ‘they don’t make them like that any more “Native Diver claimed 37 victories in his 81-race career, including three straight Hollywood Gold Cups. The Diver had a fan cub to rival that of a rock star. We have lost our stars and our fans.

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