Exercise riders have a special trash talk all their own, usually along the lines of how the horse they are aboard can trounce anything on four legs in this century or last. That’s why few people paid any attention in 2007 when Steve Willard, riding a huge unraced filly from John Shirreffs barn, told a Hollywood Park outrider, “This is the second coming of Ruffian.”
They should have listened, not only because Willard was aboard Zenyatta, but because he has also ridden a slew of stakes winners in the past 20 years. As an exercise rider and stable foreman, 65-year-old Willard has galloped the likes of Horse of the Year Alysheba, classic winners Giacomo and Gate Dancer, and multiple graded winners Gentlemen, Siphon, and Sandpit.
Today, he spends most of his time with Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic (gr. I) winner Zenyatta as Shirreffs’ foreman, tending to whatever the strapping filly needs.
“Every good filly I’ve ever been around has been nasty, but Zenyatta likes people,” Willard said. “She’ll just come up and nuzzle you. But she is a handful.”
One morning when Willard had her on the Hollywood Park training track, Zenyatta felt so good she began bucking, her back feet kicking higher than Willard had ever before experienced.
“She was going straight, and I was playing rodeo with her,” Willard recalled. “I had to let the rein out to the end of the knot, or she’d have pulled me over her head.”
Willard grew up in Evanston, Ill., and began galloping horses at Arlington Park as a youngster. He rode races throughout the Midwest from 1965-84, but never had his hands on the kind of horses as a jockey that he would get on later as an exercise rider.
When Willard’s riding career drew to a close, he was working in Louisiana. His friend Joe Petalino was an assistant in trainer Jack Van Berg’s large national outfit.
“That’s how I came to California,” Willard said. “I got hooked up with Van Berg and started galloping Gate Dancer.”
Gate Dancer won the 1984 Preakness Stakes (gr. I), but became even more famous for erratic stretch runs. His earmuffs made him a striking sight as he veered left and right toward the wire. Twice it cost him a placing, the most important when he was demoted from second to third in the inaugural Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I) at Hollywood.
“He had a tendency to duck here and duck there and pull up,” Willard said. “But he had a ton of talent.”
Years later, when Willard was working for the late Willard Proctor at Santa Anita, Van Berg would sometimes ask Steve to exercise Alysheba.
“Alysheba was very easy to gallop,” Willard said. “He had a good mouth on him. He’d tuck his chin, and you could ride him long. But he could buck and squeal and duck.”
Willard rode several good horses for future Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella during the late 1990s, including Gentlemen. A champion in his native Argentina, Gentlemen won the 1997 Pacific Classic (gr. I), Hollywood Gold Cup (gr. I), and Pimlico Special (gr. I).
Willard also got on Gold Cup and Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I) winner Siphon, another Mandella horse and one of the few good ones to toss Willard to the ground.
“Siphon was aggressive, and he was a tank—big and strong,” Willard said.
The difficult ones make Willard appreciate the easier horses, such as 2005 Kentucky Derby (gr. I) winner Giacomo in Shirreffs barn.
“He was a sweet ol’ horse—steady and solid.”
No one compares to Zenyatta for Willard, though.
“She’s special,” Willard said. “I think she’s the best one I’ve ever been on, and I’ve been on some nice ones.” By Tracy Gantz