02/19/2016 3:46PM

Hovdey: Courage defined in three dimensions


They said it then.

“I just love her. She’s been training better than she ever has in her life. But I just want her to come back okay.”

That was Steve Willard, Zenyatta’s exercise rider, as he prepared to join the big mare on the walk from the John Shirreffs barn to the Hollywood Park saddling paddock for her 2009 debut in the Milady Handicap. His tone was that of a mother watching a child go off to war, confident that the young soldier was fully trained at the job but still worried about stray bullets.

Willard, 72, died Tuesday after a two-year battle with pancreatic cancer, the same thing that killed his father at 59. Zenyatta was the last fast horse he got on in a career going back to his Arkansas roots, and if there was a better hand on the reins … well, there wasn’t.

“How do you honor someone like Steve Willard?” said Zenyatta’s owner, Jerry Moss, after the mare, still undefeated, wrapped up 2009 with a victory in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. “He’s the absolute guy, the real barometer, the first guy I’d always ask about Zenyatta because he was on her every day.”

To have that relationship with a racehorse is a special gift. To lose it hurts. How much it hurts depends on how you lost it, as Michael Straight can testify:

“The one thing that really bothers me is called neuropathic pain. It’s something I’ll have to deal with the rest of my life. My brain keeps sending messages to nerves that stop at my injury line in my chest. The reaction to the miscommunication is a terrible, stabbing pain.”

Straight was paralyzed in a fall at Arlington Park in August 2009, suffering a T-4 spinal fracture just five months into his career as a jockey. His description of neuropathic pain was from an interview in 2012. Earlier this year, he walked into the winner’s circle at Gulfstream Park equipped with a bionic exoskeleton that simulates the walking movement of the legs.

For a paraplegic, the benefits of assuming an erect posture are numerous. Blood circulation is greatly improved, and, much to Straight’s relief, the neuropathic chest pain that persisted at the line of his injury has disappeared.

“I think it helps me the most with the mental aspect,” Straight said. “Getting up every day and knowing I can walk if I want to is such a big deal. There’s nothing in this world better than seeing one foot going in front of the other. I never thought I’d be walking at 30, or the rest of my life.”

Straight followed up his Gulfstream demonstration of his exoskeleton with an appearance at the recent Jockeys’ Guild conclave. In 2015, Straight was honored with the Guild’s Courage Award, and this year, he was asked to deliver the speech sent by 2016 Courage Award winner Ron Turcotte, who was not able to make the trip from Canada. Straight and his exoskeleton took the stage to an ovation.

“Ron has always been an inspiration to me,” Straight said. “He’s been paralyzed longer than I’ve been alive. The way he’s fought to keep living all these years gives me the strength to keep going.”

A turn in the spotlight did Straight, and the game, a world of good. Too often the racing business plods along in the shadows, far from even the most basic scrutiny, as was revealed in April 2009 when 177 horses owned by Ernie Paragallo of Unbridled’s Song fame were found to be starving at his Hudson Valley Farm.

Paragallo ended up spending two years in prison, and most of the horses who survived were taken in by kind hearts and rescue groups. Among them was an unregistered and unnamed 4-year-old son of Fortunate Prospect who went to Old Friends Equine in Kentucky.

“He was not as bad as we expected he might be, but that’s not to say we haven’t had to be very careful,” Old Friends president Michael Blowen said at the time. “When he got here, all he’d eat were his own droppings because that’s what he was used to. We haven’t given him any grain yet, but now he’s eating grass really well. He’s been wormed, he’s put on a little weight, and his coat is starting to show a little color.”

The colt was eventually named Escapedfromnewyork and nicknamed “Snake” in honor of the hero from the movie his story evoked. His life at Old Friends was paradise, but he was never free from the damage done to his health by the criminal neglect. Snake had nearly six good years at Old Friends before the end came in January 2015.

Escapedfromnewyork never got to experience the pampering of a Thoroughbred raised to race, nor the feral rush of competition with his peers. Michael Straight won races and wanted more, but now his victories come in different wrapping.

Steve Willard had a fine, long life and was admired by many. And because time spent with a good person is never erased by death, the Steve Willard I’ll remember is still the one sharing tales of his rough-and-tumble career as a jockey, of his pride in learning from such horsemen as John Shirreffs, Richard Mandella, and W.L. Proctor, and of his devotion to Kiki Spencer, Willard’s equal on horseback and the love of his life.

One morning at Churchill Downs, Willard and Zenyatta were walking to the track when an awestruck admirer beheld the mare for the first time.

“Wow,” he said. “She’s so big. What is she, 17 hands?”

Willard looked down from the mountain.

“Seventeen-one,” came Steve’s reply.

He almost got it right. Zenyatta was 17-1, plus Steve Willard.