Mike Smith is a great jockey and his partnership with Zenyatta has racked up 18 straight wins.
But while Smith gets the headlines for riding Zenyatta, there’s another rider behind the scenes who deserves a good deal of the credit.
For the past four years, Zenyatta’s exercise rider has been Steve Willard, and it’s Willard who rides her day in and day out, providing the continuity in her training and providing information about the great horse to her trainer and jockey.
According to an article by Stephanie Diaz, “An Affair to Remember: Zenyatta Took Willard on the Ride of his Life” , Willard got the ride on Zenyatta because at two, she was a difficult ride.
“Frankie didn’t like her; she bounced him off both rails,” he said. “Another girl tried her, got bucked off. Another girl got dumped.”
He laughed. “She’s pretty straightforward now, but ooh, she was a hussy,” he said. “We’ve never raised a hand to her, but we’ve been firm with her. We’ve had to be. She was no kid’s horse.”
And Willard, at age 67, is no kid. In fact, he’s known a the track as “Grandpa”.
Exercise riding is mostly a job for the young — probably for two reasons: it’s not highly paid (generally around $15/horse) and it’s very dangerous. But exercise riders have a unique relationship with the horses because of the amount of time they spend with them. They are often the first to feel when a horse doesn’t feel “quite right” and they can help the jockey better understand how their charges like to run.
Willard starting galloping horses at Arlington Park in 1963 and worked as a jockey until he got too tall. He’s worked for some top trainers and rode some of racing’s greats. He was ready to retire until Zenyatta came along.
When he first started working Zenyatta, Willard found it hard to gauge the filly’s ability. Maybe that’s because she rarely allowed him access to it.
“She could do handstands,” Willard said. “When she bucked … you see that up there?” (He pointed to a rain gutter on the barn roof.) “Her back feet would be that high. She’d get perpendicular. John would say, ‘I don’t ever want to see that again.'”
Zenyatta and Willard are both set to retire after the Breeder’s cup.