Steve Willard, who as part of "Team Zenyatta" earned the 2010 Special Eclipse Award, died the night of Feb. 16. He was in his early 70s.
While Willard worked many top Southern California horses during his long career as an exercise rider, in his 60s he gained fame as the regular morning rider aboard 2010 Horse of the Year Zenyatta. Trainer John Shirreffs, who Feb. 18 confirmed the passing of his friend, stable foreman, and exercise rider, said as great a horseman as Willard was, he'll first remember the man.
"Anything I can say about Steve first has to start with him as a man. He was a kind soul, a loving person," Shirreffs said. "He also was an excellent horseman and rode many of the best horses in Southern California."
Shirreffs said a calm personality helped Willard relate well to horses.
"He's that rare person, like Mike Smith and some others, who could just instantly connect with a horse," Shirreffs said. Smith, of course, was Zenyatta's regular race rider.
In 2014, Willard shared that he'd been suffering from pancreatic cancer. Blood-Horse is still gathering details on Willard's passing.
Willard grew up in Evanston, Ill., and began galloping horses at Arlington Park as a youngster. He rode races, usually based in the Midwest from 1965-1984, 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 when friend Joe Petalino was an assistant in trainer Jack Van Berg's large national outfit. Willard soon began working for Van Berg in California. He also later worked for another Hall of Fame trainer in Richard Mandella before moving to the Shirreffs barn in 2001.
Just some of the horses he regularly worked included classic winners Gate Dancer and Alysheba, as well as multiple grade I winners Gentlemen and Siphon. In the Shirreffs stable he worked more top horses, including Kentucky Derby (gr. I) winner Giacomo, but Willard ranked three-time champion older mare Zenyatta at the top of his list.
In 2007, before Zenyatta debuted at age 3 and won both of her races that season, Willard told a Hollywood Park outrider, "This is the second coming of Ruffian," according to a Blood-Horse feature on the rider.
Because of Zenyatta's size, Willard used a special full-tree saddle made in England to fit her tall withers, while Smith would use a more normal exercise saddle for workouts. But behind that size and power, Willard marveled at Zenyatta's calm personality.
"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."