10/24/2014 3:08PM

Hovdey: Willard maintaining tight rein on a tough one


Because they refuse to talk, and usually just stand there and eat, horses need the people around them to speak up every once in a while to keep the troops entertained.

This reporter always has had a weakness for their exercise riders. Don’t know why. Maybe it’s because they’ve got more time on their hands than the labor-intense grooms. Maybe it’s because most of them have the discipline to stay as fit as jockeys, which some of them have been. Maybe it’s because they are putting their lives and limbs on the line just like jockeys but at a considerably lower rate of pay.

Mostly, it’s because the exercise rider can tell you more about the athlete than anyone else. They know what the horse feels like at a walk, a trot, a jog, or a gallop. The good riders can detect the smallest changes from one work session to the next. The best riders are valued by their trainers as jewels of great price.

Sometimes, depending on the horses underneath, they become celebrities in their own right. Dick Jenkins and Kelso. Charlie Davis and Secretariat. Mike Kennedy and Seattle Slew. Lewis Cenicola and John Henry. And, more recently, Dana Barnes and Game On Dude, Damien Rock and Wise Dan.

Whenever Zenyatta went to the track, save for an occasional work under Mike Smith, it would be lanky Steve Willard in the irons. Willard, a former jockey, was already in his 60s when Zenyatta came into his life, and he poured every ounce of his considerable experience into the task.

Zenyatta was awkward at first. She could tend toward hot, or distracted, or even a little bit lazy, and with all that bulk and length of leg, she did not have the world’s prettiest gallop. Willard had to be ready for anything.

But they made it work. With John Shirreffs calling the shots from the sidelines, Willard and Zenyatta eventually became a six-legged version of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. They did their number nearly every morning, alone, in front of empty stands, while the legend of Zenyatta grew larger and larger beyond the walls of the track. Occasionally, Shirreffs would fit Willard with a helmet-cam, allowing YouTubers to go along for the ride. It was as real as virtual reality gets.

Zenyatta retired in late 2010 after three championship seasons, two Breeders’ Cup wins, four Eclipse Awards, a record of 19 wins in 20 starts, and more media coverage than any horse since Cigar. Willard helped her wind down at the track and watched her leave for Kentucky, then he turned to Shirreffs with his usual, “Okay, boss. Who do I get on now?”

“That was it,” Willard said this week from home near Santa Anita. “John told me I didn’t need to be getting on horses anymore. And I guess he was right. I mean, I was almost 70.”

As far as Willard is concerned, Zenyatta was the last horse he ever rode in a lifetime of riding all manner of Thoroughbreds, beginning with his roots in Arkansas. There was still plenty to do, though, what with Shirreffs opening a stable in New York to go along with his California barn at Hollywood Park.

It was shortly after the traumatic closing of Hollywood last January, when the Shirreffs crew closed up shop there after more than 15 years, that Willard suspected something was going on.

“I just wasn’t up to par, kind of blah,” Willard said. “We moved out of Hollywood to Santa Anita in two days, all those horses. It was hard, and it took everything out of me. I called John after we finished and said I needed to stay home a day. Not too long after that, my skin and my eyes started to turn yellow, and after a day or two, I went to the doctor.”

It turned out that Willard was suffering from a blockage affecting liver function that was traced to a malignant tumor on the pancreas. Now, after two surgeries, chemotherapy, and countless hours of monitoring, he is starting to feel a little more alive.

“My color has come back good, and my weight is coming back after being down to 97 pounds,” Willard said. “I’ll have a bad day every once in a while but in general feel pretty good. Everybody’s been kind of surprised because pancreatic cancer is the kiss of death. My dad died from it when he was 59.”

Willard is 71 and plans on being 72 next May, with the indispensable help of his longtime partner, Kiki Spencer, and the support of Ann and Jerry Moss, Zenyatta’s owners, who have Willard plugged into the care he needs at the UCLA Medical Center.

“I’ve got a great doctor there,” he said. “He says, ‘We’re going to get this.’ So, I’m far from giving up hope. I lost all my hair, of course. I was the only one in my family that had any hair, so I figured I’d just join the crowd. But now, sonofagun, it’s growing back.”

Willard is even ready for a tentative return to the place he loves best.

“I’m going to start coming out to the track as soon as the Breeders’ Cup is over and start doing some odds and ends for John,” he said. “I can still hold a horse for shoeing, do a little painting, this and that, and maybe even make a little money.

“If what I’m getting gives me another year or two,” Willard added, “as long as it’s halfway quality, I’ll be fine with that.”

Primero More than 1 year ago
I'm just reading about Steve Willard being ill. I have to say, Steve I got to learn so much about Zenyatta and horse racing from you. I felt so relaxed around you. You graciously answered all my questions, as silly as some of them were, with such politeness, kindness, and humbleness! Many people get a close up look of Zenyatta's life daily life because of willingness to talk to me on my You Tube channel HorseP413. I remember you told me to come by Zenyatta's barn at CHD in 2010. So I did after the Classic and the afternoon after. Thank you for just being you! I just pray for your recovery! Sincerely, SORTH
hialeah More than 1 year ago
Thanks, as I was totally unaware of Steve Willard. (how wonderful to have been aboard Zenyatta) Best of Luck with all the thoughts and prayers!
Connie Brady More than 1 year ago
Loved was I was reading. All the best for any and all future plans - you deserve it.
Gj Ubar More than 1 year ago
All the best to Steve! He took pictures of Zenyatta and me when fans were allowed to visit back in the day. Nice to hear the Mosses have stepped in. They are the GREATEST!
Carole Milby More than 1 year ago
I'm glad you're feeling better, Steve. I saw you exercising Zenyatta at Churchill Downs on one of those cold mornings before the Breeders' Cup. You were wonderful with our girl, and you didn't act or look like you were in your 60s. I hope you continue to get stronger every day, and you're back at John's barn, doing what you love.
Alexandra Wyper More than 1 year ago
Love and best wishes to you Steve. You are such an important part of Zenyatta's legacy, and I really enjoyed hearing some of your stories and appreciated your gracious approach to us out-of-state visitors to Barn 55! So glad to know that you are feeling better.
Chantal Smithless More than 1 year ago
Couldn't have said it better, Sandy! He was more of an important a part of Zenny's life than so many people realized because all of his work was done out of the spotlight. Keep fighting Steve! Sounds like you have wonderful doctors looking after you and courage and spirit is half the battle and you have plenty of that in spades!
lindaolson1112 More than 1 year ago
Best wishes to you Steve. I wish you were going to be at Santa Anita during Breeders Cup so you could sign my beloved Zenyatta hat. I have the signatures of the Mosses, the Sheriffs, and Mike Smith on it - yours would be a great addition!
Chad mc rory More than 1 year ago
OK Jay, Get the Chaplains' address out to us please.
overturnH8 More than 1 year ago
Best of wishes to Steve who took such good care on the track (in the mornings) for my fave of all time -- Zenyatta.
jim lefferts More than 1 year ago
A gem of a story. Here's to your health Mr. Willard!