02/19/2016 4:23PM

Zenyatta's former exercise rider, Steve Willard, dies

Barbara D. Livingston
Former exercise rider Steve Willard, shown aboard Zenyatta in 2010, died earlier this week.

ARCADIA, Calif. – Steve Willard, a former jockey who later exercised such notable runners as Gate Dancer, Gentleman, and the famous mare Zenyatta, died Tuesday, according to trainer John Shirreffs.

Willard was 71. He died at a local hospital. Willard had been treated for pancreatic cancer in recent years, Shirreffs said on Friday.

Willard was closely associated with Zenyatta through her racing career from 2007-10. Willard said he planned to retire when Zenyatta left the track at the end of 2010, but he stayed with Shirreffs into 2011.

“He galloped some of the best horses on the racetrack,” Shirreffs said.

Willard grew up in Illinois and rode at tracks in the Midwest, including Fairmount Park, until the early 1980s. Shirreffs recalled on Friday that Willard worked for Marion Van Berg and his son, Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg, after he quit riding races.

In the 1990s, Willard worked for another Hall of Fame trainer, Richard Mandella, who at the time had Gentleman among his top older horses.

“He was one of the best I ever had,” Mandella said on Friday. “He was a good rider and a good horseman. He could ride one or gallop one.”

Willard began working for Shirreffs in the 2000s and was with the team when Giacomo won the 2005 Kentucky Derby.

Willard rose to prominence in 2009 and 2010 through his association with Zenyatta, the 2010 Horse of the Year. He was her regular exercise rider and rode her in some workouts. When Zenyatta’s career ended in late 2010, Willard was among the group that traveled to Kentucky with the mare.

Shirreffs said that no services have been scheduled.

From the DRF archives

:: Q&A with Steve Willard

:: Hovdey: Willard maintaining tight rein on a tough one

:: Zenyatta's people: Exercise rider Steve Willard


Sheila Hensley Hunnicutt More than 1 year ago
One of the best friends I ever had.
Kate Harper More than 1 year ago
I am so sorry to hear this news. There is absolutely no doubt what a special connection he had with Zenyatta and how well he sat atop a thoroughbred. My condolences to his family and all those who loved him.
Kathleen Palmore More than 1 year ago
RIP GRANPA ,Class act all the way ,had as good a pair of hands as I ever seen on the back of a horse,a good friend and a true champion ,my condolences to kiki and his family rip buddy,kenny black
Steve Hasner More than 1 year ago
This is a great loss. My prayers go out to the family and to all those involved. Rest in peace Steve.
Kelly Schreiner More than 1 year ago
Steve Willard had the kindest heart in the world. In 1987 when the Breeders Cup was held at Hollywood Park he took me as his guest for the day to sit in a box right on the wire where all the biggest owners, trainers, and movie stars were sitting. It was a thrill that I will never forget. Rest in peace, my friend.