10/24/2014 2:08PM

Hovdey: Willard maintaining tight rein on a tough one

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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.”