California Chrome Just One Part of Dihigi Gladney’s Amazing Ride

The Life
Horses have always been a part of life for Dihigi Gladney, California Chrome's exercise rider. (Courtesy Chris Aplin)

The California sun warmed the flanks of the ponies as the children flocked to look at them. Happy children with flurries of butterflies painted on their faces pointed and chattered to their parents about which pony they wanted to ride. There were Fancy, Cali, Maverick and Chocolate wearing Circle Y western saddles bedecked with colorful horse racing saddle cloths and western headstalls. A smiling man stood next to the line and took in all the details. Every pony was immaculately groomed and their manes were freshly combed. Their tack was clean, their coats glistened and his staff was smartly dressed in “Got Ponies?” gray polo shirts. After checking the saddle cinches, he turned to the first little girl in line wearing a perfect, pink pony dress and said, “Do you want to ride Maverick?” as he extended his hand. She reached up trustingly and they walked to the patient pony, hand-in-hand, where he carefully lifted her into the saddle. He then showed the older kids how to put a foot into the stirrup and swing up into the saddle. Proud parents readied their phones as the ponies began to walk around in a circle. They didn’t even have to yell “smile” as the kids’ faces were radiant with joy. This simple childhood pleasure was repeated for hours. Hundreds of photographs and videos were taken over the weekend, and nobody even knew that their children had just met the exercise rider of one of the most popular (and wealthiest) Thoroughbreds: the illustrious California Chrome.

Gladney aboard pony Coco. (Courtesy Dihigi Gladney)
It is so peaceful in the infield at the Santa Anita Park racetrack that you do not realize there are horses racing until the roar of the crowd alerts you. Dihigi Gladney glances up, smiles and returns his attention to the ponies. He is a thoughtful and balanced man who has a calming presence when you meet him. He is blessed with a high-voltage smile and an amazing outlook at life that has helped him get through road blocks and bumps in the road that would have flattened the average person.

Gladney grew up in urban Los Angeles in a world that few people associate with equestrian activities. His grandfather John Davis had a riding stable in Gardena. It was an amazing world for a young boy. He started riding an older Thoroughbred and by the time he was 6 years old, he was leading riders on the local trails — “right in the middle of the ghetto where there were power lines” — and managing the pony rides. In the afternoon when school ended, his cousins would ride up on their horses leading his pony. After a few quick laps around the school, they would speed off to the stable. He was a natural with the ponies and horses, but that is because he didn’t want to stay home. For his grandfather, education was a must. “You didn’t work for him unless your grades were good!” The stable had many problem ponies and it was Gladney’s job to ride them. “Granddad said you either rode what he put you on or you stayed home!” With a twinkle in his eye, Gladney remembered, “We had some ponies that had some speed!” and that he was like any other kid that wanted to ride fast. His grandfather taught him to “do more and try harder.”

But Gladney didn’t want to be a jockey. “I didn’t know any black jockeys back then.” His hero was Charles “Pee-Wee” Sampson, who was the first African American to win a world title in bull riding. Sampson had a huge influence on Gladney, who was riding bulls by the time he was 15 years old. He was probably the only 10th grader bull rider in Compton. When he met Sampson, he laughed and said, “Do you know how many times I dressed up as you for career day at school?”  

Gladney (right) with his grandfather, John Davis. (Courtesy Dihigi Gladney)
Along with bull riding came injuries and broken bones. It made his grandmother nervous. He never had any issues being an African American in the arena. “When you rodeo you become a family no matter what your race is.” He started getting up early before school and helped out his cousin at Los Alamitos with Quarter Horses. He owes his start to a local trainer who gave him a job and paid for his license. In 1995, Gladney rode 48 races and made it into the winner’s circle twice. It was enough to spur him on. He increased his mounts in 1996 and worked through injuries until he was making a good living as a jockey in 2001 with more than 400 mounts and sizeable earnings. All that changed in 2002 when he suffered a devastating riding accident and broke four vertebrae in his back and all the ribs on his left side.

In breaking his back, Gladney found his backbone. Through diligence, determination and dedication he carved a way back to horses. But the path was not easy. He couldn’t sit. He couldn’t walk. He couldn’t tie his shoelaces. He had a special back brace made but it made him raw. Water therapy in the pool was too painful. He battled depression. “When you are hurt, you always think, ‘why me?’ I had been riding and winning a lot of races. There was no way you could tell me it was going to be better because I thought, ‘no it’s not.’ ” But there is always a road back to horses. He slowly started walking on the local horse trail with his son. A short walk for most people would take him an hour. He kept telling his doctor “Man, I just want to get on a horse. I want to be mobile again.” After several years of rehab and recovery, he finally got permission to ride a “regular” horse (not a racehorse) with strict orders of: “Don’t overdo it!”  He thought, “This is going to be great again!” Five minutes of intense pain later, Gladney’s brain and body were screaming, “Get me off!” He worried that he would never be able to gallop again but he dug deep and continued his recovery. He was telling himself that he could do it. 

Gladney with California Chrome and his groom, Raul Rodriguez. (Courtesy of Chris Aplin)
Gladney sighs and it is the sound of a man letting go. He thinks for a moment and says quietly, “The journey took me a while to get going again. I was struggling with it. I was so determined though.” He was inspired by his children. His friends and family encouraged him to get back in the saddle. In May of 2007, his friend Walther Solis started him galloping again. It took a lot of willpower but Gladney says that when you have a passion, you will find a way. He started dieting to get to riding weight and used an exercise bike to get in shape. Gladney laughed, “I won a lot of races riding that bike while watching racing on TV.” He set goals. He made it to Pomona to ride and it was thrilling. He was delighted to ride the mules; the Quarter Horses, Arabians and Thoroughbreds. He rode at the Fresno Fair and won a jockey title. Soon, he was fit enough to ride races back at Los Alamitos. It felt great to get his riding rhythm again. He rode races through 2012, until there were enough nagging injuries that it was time for him to stop. In a career full of speed and tumbles, he rode in 2,610 races and was in the money 766 times. When he had to have help putting his foot in the stirrup, he knew he was done racing.

Even though he stopped being a jockey, that didn’t mean he was done riding. He started exercising horses for Art Sherman and Jack Van Berg at Hollywood Park. He loved riding Derby contender I Want Revenge for Jeff Mullins. Among other prominent horses he exercised were Mr. Commons for John Shirreffs and Tale of a Champion for Kristin Mulhall

He started exercising California Chrome in October of 2015. He said that Chrome is quite a handful. He is an alert, domineering horse and you have to pay attention when you are riding him. He draws great attention to himself. “He is very controllable but he is a dominant horse also.” Gladney has built a relationship with the stallion and goes to see him in the morning. Chrome recognizes voices and knows Gladney, trainers Art and Alan Sherman and his groom Raul Rodriguez. He loves his cookies and he has a special nicker when he recognizes his friends. Chrome has a set routine and he sticks to it. He trains, gets a bath, hot walks, eats a little and then sleeps for an hour. Then he talks, especially about cookies. Gladney said that one better not walk past him with a cookie. His nicker can carry! 

What does it feel like to ride a 5-year-old stallion of his caliber? Gladney says it is amazing. He has to have a different mindset because every day is different with him. Chrome is so smooth in the way he carries himself. Chrome somehow knows when race day is approaching and gets aggressive on the track. Gladney says Chrome is tough and that he doesn’t like to be smothered. “I just try to keep him out of trouble. He continues to teach me out there.” 

Gladney giving pony rides at Santa Anita. (Julie June Stewart photo)
It has been a thrilling ride for a young man who at one point of his life didn’t know if he would ever be able to get on a horse’s back again. Now he is photographed galloping the richest racehorse in the country. He has passed his love of horses and riding to his children. His son, Jayden, works with the ponies and his daughter, London, rides bareback and also barrel races. “She is me in ponytails.” London has already stated that she wants to pony horses at the track and help the horses and jockeys.

As he stands quietly with his ponies at Santa Anita, a little boy reaches up and grabs his hand. “Which pony do you want to ride?” he asks. The toddler points to the pinto, and Gladney picks him up and carries him to the pony and shows him how to sit in the saddle. The little boy straightens his back and sits proudly waving at his parents. Gladney moves smoothly around the circle just like he does in life, with dignity. From the mighty gallop of California Chrome to the soothing walk of Fancy the pony, he carries himself with grace. The toddler squeals with delight and bounces his legs up and down in the saddle. Gladney glances behind him at the jockeys on the track heading to the gate for the next race. He carries the young boy back to his parents and reaches for the hand of the next child and asks them, “Do you like ponies?” He bends down to hear the soft response of the child and smiles. It’s the smile of a man who has made his way through the complexities of life and now enjoys an afternoon in the sun with the horses he loves.

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