11/04/2010 12:24PM

Zenyatta's people: Exercise rider Steve Willard

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Barbara D. Livingston

Obsessive, reverent, laid back, indulgent -- the team behind the unbeaten mare reflects her quirky brilliance.

Exercise rider Steve Willard | Jockey | Owners | Trainer | Groom and hotwalker | Masseuse

Exercise rider Steve Willard has confessed.

He admitted that he allows Zenyatta occasionally to misbehave during morning gallops – a sideways step here, a buck there, a toss of the head and a squeal.

Willard figures if the 6-year-old mare wants to act like a 2-year-old filly, well, permission granted.

“I let her get away with stuff sometimes, which probably is not good,” Willard said. “I know I like to get away with stuff, so why not her?” Willard, by the way, is 67.

Perhaps allowing small doses of mischief has extended the career of horse and human. Zenyatta and Willard have been a team for three years, and Willard understands the balancing act between freedom and constraint.

“She still gives me trouble once in a while – she has an attitude,” Willard said. “You don’t want to take that out of a horse, especially a filly. Otherwise, you take the bloom out of them – you take the spirit away from them.”

And so Willard allows Zenyatta occasionally to march to her own beat, knowing he will hear about it later from the boss, trainer John Shirreffs.

“He’ll ask, why did you let her go to the outside like that, or why did you go so fast?”

Willard always has the right answer.

“Sometimes she has an attitude – you have to let her think she got away with something,” he said. “You don’t want to keep them under total control all the time – they’ve got to be a little free. You don’t reprimand them, you just pet them and say okay, let’s go. And she goes back to [galloping].”

It is nothing new for Zenyatta. Even before she ran, Shirreffs said, “She was strong and overpowering and would push you around.” On the board that lists assignments for exercise riders, he said, “Zenyatta was not a name everyone wanted to see next to theirs.”

Finally, it was Willard’s turn. “I got her through the process of elimination,” he said. “She bucked people off, and would run to the inside fence and run to the outside fence. She wanted to be her own boss. It sort of scared people because she’s so big. They said, go ahead and take her.”

It took a month before Willard and Zenyatta began to get along. “Everybody loves a little challenge, and you know there’s talent there, and you try to do the best with them and teach them,” he said.

“We knew she was good,” Willard said. “We didn’t know she was great.”

While Zenyatta piled up victories, her idiosyncrasies continued. During her 4-year-old campaign, Zenyatta began to develop the bad habit of leaning into her accompanying pony.

Willard’s girlfriend of 22 years, former exercise rider Kiki Spencer, had a background in dressage. Along with Shirreffs, they came up with the idea of using a long dressage whip to cure the habit.

Shirreffs was for it. “A horse like Zenyatta, you can’t get rough with,” Shirreffs said. “With a long whip, he could just touch her on the hocks, which would move her over.”

Habit cured.

Of course, there is more to being a top exercise rider than getting along with the horse. Willard is a former jockey – “I had a mediocre riding career,” he said – and galloped horses such as Gate Dancer, Gentlemen, and Siphon before going to work for Shirreffs in 2001.

“Steve and I work very well together, because I know exactly where he’s coming from,” Shirreffs said. “He’s coming from a tremendous background of racing. When he says something, it’s not insignificant.”

Willard said he plans to retire in 2011, and what a way to finish a career – on the lively, playful Zenyatta.

“I’m not going to take a lot of credit,” Willard said, “but I’m not going to take a little credit, either.”

Next: Groom Mario Espinoza and hotwalker Carmen Zamona