04/15/2010 12:00AM

Q&A: Steve Willard

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Barbara D. Livingston

Exercise rider of unbeaten, two-time champion Zenyatta, who won her 16th straight race in last week's Apple Blossom Stakes at Oaklawn Park.

Birthdate: May 7, 1943, in Evanston, Ill.

Family: Single

Got into racing because. . . "I always wanted a horse when I was young. I saved money from cutting grass to get a horse. Later on, a friend of mine was galloping at a farm in Illinois. I went to the track one day with him and another guy. I got a job working for Mike Seba, a trainer. I went to work for him at Arlington Park in 1963. He took my contract in 1964, and I started riding races in 1965."

Had you envisioned being a jockey? "I liked horses, but I didn't think about being a jockey. My dad was stocky. I figured I'd get too big and too fat."

Where did you compete as a jockey? "I rode at Oaklawn, Detroit Race Course, Hazel Park, Delaware, Rockingham - all over. I was a jock from 1965 until 1984. I didn't win that many races, maybe 400 or 500. I was sort of hit and miss."

Best horse ridden in a race? "I rode a horse named Best Person, but it was before he won the West Virginia Derby."

You stopped riding in 1984. Did you immediately become an exercise rider? "Yes. I was working for Jack Van Berg, getting on Gate Dancer. I went out to California. I was supposed to go for six months. That was 26 years ago. I was Gate Dancer's exercise rider for the first Breeders' Cup at Hollywood Park in 1984."

After working for Van Berg, who else did you work for? "Darrell Vienna for a year, then Willard Proctor for seven or eight years, then Richard Mandella, then back to Proctor, then back to Mandella, and finally John Shirreffs. I've worked for John for nine years."

Who are the best horses you've been on as an exercise rider? "Zenyatta, Gate Dancer, Gentlemen, Afternoon Deelites, Dare N Go, After Market, Giacomo, and Siphon."

How did you end up as Zenyatta's rider? "I was so lucky. Every time I think I'm done getting a good one, I pick up another good one. I got her through a process of elimination, either because other riders didn't initially get along with her or were riding too many other horses in the mornings."

What is it like riding her? "It's a thrill. I try to keep it in perspective that it's just another horse, because if you're too cautious, it backfires. I've been on all those horses, but Zenyatta, I put her in another category. She just floats. She can be real kind. She's a joy to gallop. But when she's fresh, she can be a real hussy and a wench. She can be a real handful."

What else sets her apart? "One thing is that she likes people. Most good horses don't. Gentlemen, he was mean."

What are your memories of her Breeders' Cup Classic win? "That's the race that made people really sit up and take notice of her. There are only a few great horses, but she'll go down in the annals. When she was into her stride down the backstretch, I thought we were going to be all right. The horses fanned out at the top of the stretch, but Mike Smith [her jockey] is so good in big races. The cream rises to the top. He chopped off the corner perfect, and then when he got her to the outside, I knew she had it won. I knew it halfway down the stretch. Just thinking about it gives me goosebumps."

How many horses do you get on each day? "Before I had a problem with my sciatic nerve, I'd get on four to six horses a day, including her. Since that, I get on about two. I don't want my back going cattywampus. You've got to ride to stay fit."

How can you ride with a bad back? "I didn't ride for two months. The only thing that got me going again was seeing a reflexologist."

Other interests? "I like watching history shows on television. I also like watching political shows. I've gotten more into that the last few years. It makes John and everybody else at the barn sick. I was raised conservative, and I try to be centrist, but I'm not real happy with the direction things are going. That's about all I should say."

Favorite music: "I like classical music. I like listening to that while I'm driving. It's soothing, restful. Now that I'm in my 60's, sometimes it's good to get a little restful."

How much longer do you think you'll do this? "Another year. I take it one year at a time. I thought I was done last year with the sciatic nerve problems I was having."

What will you do when you stop riding? "If I stay in California, I could stay on the ground and work for John. Maybe take out my assistant's license. I've been threatening to do that since I worked for Proctor. Mandella wanted me to do it. John, too. I'm just a procrastinator."

With your back problems, would you have come back if Zenyatta had been retired at the end of last year? "Let's put it this way - I wouldn't have been in as big a hurry to get back."