USC students unearth prize racehorse

Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences professor of anthropology Thomas Garrison and USC Dornsife professor of religion Lynn Swartz Dodd along with a team of students began the excavation of Native Diver, a prize racehorse buried in 1967 at the Hollywood Park racetrack.

Neigh no more · The burial of prize racehorse Native Diver was excavated by a team of USC students at the Hollywood Park racetrack. - Photo courtesy of Thomas Garrison

Neigh no more · The burial of prize racehorse Native Diver was excavated by a team of USC students at the Hollywood Park racetrack. – Photo courtesy of Thomas Garrison

The dig was made at the request of Richard Shapiro, grandson of Native Diver’s owner and breeder, Louis K. Shapiro. Native Diver was a prize racehorse in the 1960s and the first horse bred in California to earn more than $1 million. By the time of his death in 1967, he was the eighth highest earning horse of all time. A member of the Racing Hall of Fame, Native Diver set multiple world records and his 34 wins in stakes races remains an unmatched world record.

When the horse died at eight-years-old, he was buried at the Hollywood Park track in Inglewood, Calif. -— where many of his records were made. A large stone monument was erected about 30 yards away from his grave to memorialize the horse.

When the Hollywood Park track closed in December, plans to put an office building and shopping complex were announced. Shapiro reached out to USC for help in moving Native Diver’s remains.

“He’s racing royalty,” Shapiro told the Los Angeles Times. “You couldn’t leave a horse like this beneath a real estate development.”

The horse’s remains will be transferred to Del Mar racetrack until another burial site is prepared.

Archaeologists Dodd and Garrison led a team of Dornsife students in the excavation over the weekend.

The team of students was made up of volunteers from Garrison’s anthropology classes. The students invited to the project are currently studying archaeology and human interactions with ancient environments.

The project gave the students a chance to participate in an excavation of relatively recent remains. According to Garrison, the remains had relatively little deterioration. The students were able to experience a complete and successful excavation.

“The preservation of the remains is incredible,” Garrison said. “They were really able to see all of the parts of the animal.”

An initial probing expedition revealed that the remains were buried eight feet down. The team had to bring in a backhoe to do dig down to just above the remains before completing the final unearthing themselves.

The excavation wasn’t without its surprises. The team found that the horse’s ribcage was filled with sawdust. Because Native Diver died of colic, which affects the intestines, the coroner likely removed the intestines for examination and replaced them with sawdust, a common practice in the 1960s. They also discovered that the horse’s head was encased in a plastic bag.

Aside from the experience of participating in the excavation, Garrison said that having Shapiro with them was most beneficial for the students. Having someone connected to Native Diver enriched the excavation with personal details.

“He brought pictures and some of Native Diver’s prizes,” Garrison said. “He did a little presentation of the horse to the students. It really showed that we’re actually digging up the human past and things people have a connection with.”