Breeders’ Cup: Riding Zenyatta

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Steve Willard looks, acts, walks and talks like he’s been through some wars, traveled plenty of hard miles. He rides like he’s only known peace.

Willard rides Zenyatta like he doesn’t know she’s undefeated, like he hasn’t heard she’s morning-line favorite for Saturday’s Breeders’ Cup Classic. He jokes with trainer John Shirreffs, reminisces with Hall of Famer Jerry Bailey. All the while, keeping peace with the biggest, toughest, most intimidating Thoroughbred at Santa Anita.


“She can be easy to ride and she also can be very difficult,” Willard said. “She wants to do what she wants to do, she might want to go that way and I want to go this way, one of those things, we try to reach a happy medium without getting too strong or too aggressive with her, but when she’s sweet, she’s real sweet. Well, you been around women.”

Willard doesn’t laugh or smile with the comment, just stating fact in a black and white world.

With Zenyatta’s morning exercise filed away, Willard walked to the apron of the track to watch some of her competition put in their final miles, then he walked slowly back to the barn. He knows the trip – 13-for-13 – is about to wind to a close. Either way on Saturday, no hard feelings.

“Win, lose or draw on Saturday, she’s a great mare,” Willard said. “Her attitude and her want to do it, everything combined, it’s hard to knock it. She’s changed a little bit, not a whole lot, size-wise she’s gotten bigger and stronger, but her general demeanor and attitude stayed the same. She likes people. It’s very unusual for a good horse to like people. She’s a real joy to be around, it’s a good thing, she could make your life miserable.”

Willard began riding races at Detroit Race Course in 1965, rode about 18 years, admittedly he got lazy, didn’t work at it, squandered most of his career. He hooked up with Jack Van Berg, came out to California in 1984 with the enigmatic Gate Dancer. Guess you can say he’s spanned the entire Breeders’ Cup from Gate Dancer in the inaugural running to Zenyatta in the 26th renewal. He came to California for six months. Never left. He joined Shirreffs stable in 2000 or 2001 and even wears a rumpled sweat-stained Mill Ridge Farm ball cap, just like his boss. He’s still fighting weight, 117 pounds.

“Whenever I worked at the game, it’s been good to me,” Willard said. “With her, we knew she was good right away, 20 seconds. We didn’t know she was this good, anybody that tells you they knew they were this good is a lying son of a . . . there’s no way to tell. I knew she was good enough that I bet her first out, then the prices sort of fell and it wasn’t worth betting on her. After she won at Hot Springs, we all knew she was really, really special. Really special.”

Zenyatta shipped to Oaklawn Park for the Apple Blossom in April, 2008, for her fourth career start. She made her first – and only – start on dirt. Mike Smith replaced David Flores. It was the last time she didn’t go off favorite. She dominated the Grade I stakes.

“On the dirt, she was better. Everybody says she’s a synthetic, turf filly. She’s better on the dirt. When I got on her at Hot Springs and I went from here to the end of this barn, galloping, I said it was all over, I could tell by her motor function,” Willard said. “I knew she would run her race, that’s the only other time I bet her, she paid $5.80. That was like stealing. Stealing money.”

As for this weekend’s challenge, Willard remained confident, but philosophical at the same time.

“She’s as ready as she’s going to be, if she has a good trip and everything goes right, she could win it, but races are races,” Willard said. “We can’t keep running her against the same fillies, I think they made the right decision. If she’s that good, she can win.”

Willard gave directions to the track kitchen to a couple of passing Europeans, all the while, still talking about Zenyatta.

“She’s so special, so special,” Willard said. “But I still get nervous.”