The best-kept secrets are often hiding from the spotlight. The Guy with the Golden Smile is one of them. We’ve met Dihigi Gladney, the exercise rider of California Chrome.
I magine yourself a man who constantly smiles in the light of a Riviera morning. Whose radiant attitude fills those around him with laughter, whether they are Rashid from Pakistan or Martin Perry from Yuba City.
Put him in a pair of blue jeans, a hat, and a t-shirt.
“Gday, ladies, y’all waiting for me?” says Dihigi Gladney, the 40-year-old exercise rider who rides California Chrome in the mornings.
It’s an early morning as we meet in the lobby of the Meydan Hotel. The atmosphere here is very different from Dihigi’s native neighborhood of Watts, in Los Angeles, California. The hotel is infused with elegance. Beautifully dressed men and women walk through its gigantic glass sliding doors. Some of the ladies sport custom-made silk dresses, all perfectly matched with their crème-white fresh water pearls and their coral-embroidered clutches. The gentlemen in jackets read the day’s newspaper, one of which has California Chrome on the cover. The anticipation is tangible: how will this rags to riches story turn out?
Dihigi looks cool, floating through the cocktail crowd with the confidence of Jay-Z.
He has a wild-eyed attitude all the same, popping through the herds of pretties with his home-brewed American humor, a down-to-earth mindset, and turf-mud on his hands. Today, just like most other days of his life, he is the center of attention.
They don’t get up on stage to receive the trophy with the rest of the team. And, in the hose down hall, there’s not a single camera flash, that’s for sure.
Yet, nobody seems to know that they’re talking about him.
“I started riding California Chrome last October,” Dihigi says. “Alan Sherman had shown me a video of Chrome on his phone and just looking at his body I saw he was huge.”
Dihigi’s knowledge of horses comes from many years of experience and from growing up at a rental stable.
“I even rode my horse to McDonalds drive-through as a kid,” Dihigi says with a laugh. “I’d order French fries and an orange juice. You know, something that I could share with the horse.”
Dihigi’s innate passion for animals has been lifelong. He is a horseman to his very core, and besides the mission of guiding California Chrome to peak form, Dihigi also runs his own riding business in Los Angeles, where he teaches people about horsemanship and how to become better riders.
“I started off as a bull rider, but that was back when there were no sponsorships in the sport,” he says. “It was hard to make money from it, and I got too tired of being hurt and chased around the arena. At a very young age I would go to live racing with my grandfather. He would also do the backside picnic with his pony business, where I was able to meet many of the jockeys I’d been watching race. At a stable as a teenager, I would gallop my cousin’s quarter horse that sometimes raced at Los Alamitos. Between all these events, my love for racing began.”
Dihigi soon found himself riding races and started off performing well as a jockey. But then, in January of 2002, every jockey’s worst fear became a reality for him.
”I was battling with top riders and I kept getting better,” he says. “Then, I was thrown off a horse and broke four thoracic discs in my back and all of my left ribs.”
His body was a wreck. He couldn’t even stand up straight and his jockey career was over. He had to stay sidelined, unable to ride and suffering through the long process of physical rehab.
“I had to wear a brace, but I found a way to be around horses anyway,” Dihigi says. “I’d teach other people to ride, and I’d go for long walks with my son when he was riding.”
It took five years of persistent determination, mental toil, and a tortuous physical healing process. Slowly, Dihigi was able to go back to riding again and today, 13 years later, he’s in the best shape of his life, fit enough to exercise 10 racehorses a day.
“I really love what I do and being able to ride again,” he says. “You know as a kid from Watts, I didn’t even know of any black men in the business. I may have met a lot of racism in the business, but if so I haven’t seen it. I’ve made sure to make people around me smile instead. There can’t be any racism if there is a smile, right?”
Last year, trainers Alan and Art Sherman asked Dihigi if he could start exercising California Chrome, who was America’s Horse of the Year in 2014 but hadn’t raced since finishing second in the 2015 Dubai World Cup.
“I was already exercising horses for them daily,” says Dihigi. “The conversation about Chrome coming back into training opened up an opportunity for me to become his exercise rider.”
In October, Dihigi and California Chrome first started their workouts together, and today, having spent almost every day together since then, the pair has developed deep bond.
“California Chrome is a horse with an amazing personality,” Dihigi says. “I mean, one day I was out riding at Los Alamitos, and I met a woman who stopped at the rail and said ‘Good morning.’ I smiled to her and I said, ‘Oh, well good morning to you, too,’ but then she looked at me as if I was an idiot and said, ‘Well, I’m not talking to you, I’m talking to the horse!’ That was about when I understood how famous this horse really is.”
California Chrome has become a true celebrity. Put him on a BRAVO show and he would rival the Kardashians. Every morning during exercise before the Dubai World Cup, people would wait in line, eager to get his picture or just see him ride by.
“Chrome really loves the attention,” Dihigi says. “He’s looking around and posing in front of the cameras. He has the eye of a hawk. He can see from a distance if there’s a new truck coming on the road.”
Wouldn’t you want to race him as a jockey yourself?
“Me? Well, I’m not a race jockey anymore,” Dihigi says.
But if anyone did ask you, would you do it?
“If they had asked me to do it, well, who wouldn’t say yes to that,” Dihigi says as he shakes his head and smiles. “You see, what you’ve got to understand is that we all do this as a team. Me, I am a good exercise rider for Chrome. The Shermans are great trainers, Raul (Rodriguez) is a wonderful groom, Victor (Espinoza) is a great jockey, and Chrome is managed by extra-ordinary owners.”
Do you ever feel that it’s unfair sometimes? Like, you’re a huge part of California Chrome’s success, but you don’t get any attention for it?
“That’s the way it is in this business,” Dihigi says, now with an even bigger smile on his face.
“I mean, Raul, the groom, he literally sleeps in the same room as California Chrome, but there’s nobody paying attention to him either. That’s the way it is. There will always be parts left out.”
“I really love what I do and being able to ride again. You know as a kid from Watts, I didn’t even know of any black men in the business.”
Watching Dihigi and Raul the night of Dubai World Cup is an eye-opening experience. Their devotion is remarkable. Even when their hands are full and other grooms come to offer them help, they whisk people away, persistent in taking care of every single detail on their own.
When the race is over and California Chrome has won, it is Dihigi and Raul who take the champion to the hose-down hall below. After posing in the winner’s enclosure, they don’t get up on stage to receive the trophy with the rest of the team but rather continue to take care of the horse. In the hose-down hall, there are far fewer cameras, but it doesn’t seem to bother either Dihigi or Raul. The only thing they care about is the condition of the horse.
“I used to long for the spotlight when I was younger,” Dihigi says. “I’ve won some races, and that was a great feeling, but what I care about today is my health and my kids.”
He can understand the frustration of some of the exercise riders, who see jockeys getting famous after riding a horse for two minutes in the spotlight while their own hard work goes un-recognized, but that is not the path he has chosen.
“What I personally love is to ride and to be around horses,” he says. “Even during days when I’ve been exercise riding other people’s horses, I go straight to my own stable to ride my own horses, and then I clean the stable.”
Is that what you want to be remembered for? For succeeding in silence?
“I want to be remembered for being the guy with the golden smile,” he says—and smiles.