Dihigi Gladney, exercise rider for champion race horse California Chrome, was officially introduced to me in the barns on the backside of Santa Anita Race Track before dawn on January 7, 2016. But I had seen him before.
On that frosty morning, I had made the trip from my new home in Georgia to watch my favorite Thoroughbred in his first start since recovering from a bone bruise while training in England in mid-2015. In those early morning hours a genial man with the broadest smile I’ve ever seen repeated our introduction, “So, you’re Kat?” And then a wink.
Though I had not known his name, nor his pedigree, I remembered Dihigi from my very first day at Los Alamitos. Whether you have met this man in person or have only seen pictures, you get his essence. This is a person who leaves an impression.
In depth profiles have been written about this talented and vociferous horseman, so my goal is not to revisit his credentials or storied career - he’s been a rodeo rider, he’s broken more than a few incredibly significant bones, he’s been told he would never walk again, and he’s now piloting the most impressive Thoroughbred race horse since Secretariat through his daily training routine.
The main thing that I will say about Dihigi is that you hear him before you see him. There is a relatively constant stream of chatter, and if quiet time ensues when Dihigi is around, I put a hand to his forehead to check for temperature. A smile and one of the most positive attitudes I’ve ever personally experienced are a given. And then there’s the banter.
This is not to say that his focus is not sharp. I’ve rarely witnessed a rider so in tune with his mount. Even as Dihigi is throwing a sharp remark to a friend passing him as he heads to the track in pre-dawn hours, he is acutely aware of his horse and his surroundings.
In the two years that I have been with Team Sherman, I’ve seen California Chrome “go rodeo” before almost every race and it scares the crap out of me. Those fears are calmed a bit with Dihigi on board. It was clear to me on January 7 that Dihigi was in synch with this horse - that he knew what he might do, and how to adapt.
I’ve witnessed Dihigi shouting, “turn me loose”, to a pony rider at Del Mar as Chrome danced on his hind legs in the paddock. And I’ve seen him shepherd the most powerful racehorse of our time through lap after lap of breezes and gallops and canters.
What is obvious to me is that California Chrome knows and understands Dihigi’s role and his goal. A partnership is apparent, and this horse trusts his rider.
A more positive impact to this already impressive team could hardly have been imagined. The laughter and absolute joy that is bestowed on even the casual observer is evident with each crass and irreverent comment. It is, as if, it has always been as such.
I’m amazed at how quickly the members of Chrome’s team have become my close friends. And I am honored. This afternoon I called my friend, who is listed in my phone with a simple “D”. I wanted to remind him of the photography lessons I had promised to his daughter, London, and arrange the time and place to get them going. When I told him I would be arriving for this week of Breeders' Cup action on Wednesday, he seemed disappointed that I was not going to be there sooner.
I am suddenly called to lyrics of one of my favorite storytellers - James Taylor…
“It is a feeling like the clenching of a fist, there is a hunger in the center of the chest. There is a passage through the darkness and the mist. And though the body sleeps…..the heart will never rest. Shed a little light….”