Obituary: Steve Willard, jockey

Former jockey with great track record as a trainer dies from pancreatic cancer. Picture: AP
Former jockey with great track record as a trainer dies from pancreatic cancer. Picture: AP
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Died 16 February, 2016, aged 72.

Steve Willard, a former jockey who worked as the exercise rider for superstar mare Zenyatta, has died. He was 72.

Trainer Richard Mandella said Saturday that Willard died Tuesday at an area hospital. He had struggled with pancreatic cancer in recent years, Mandella said.

Willard was the regular exercise rider for Zenyatta in the mornings and sometimes rode her in timed workouts. He had planned to retire when she did in 2010, but continued working for her trainer John Shirreffs into 2011. Zenyatta won the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Classic and was named 2010 Horse of the Year.

Among other notable horses Willard exercised were Gate Dancer and Gentleman. Willard worked for such Hall of Fame trainers as Jack Van Berg and Mandella after ending a nearly 20-year career as a jockey in the early 1980s. Willard grew up in Illinois and started out galloping horses at Arlington Park near Chicago.

“He was a great person and a great rider,” Mandella said. “He was always on somebody’s best horse, including mine. He was the best I ever had. He liked horses and they liked him. They made a good combination.”

Willard began working for Shirreffs in the 2000s and was part of the trainer’s team when 50-1 shot Giacomo won the 2005 Kentucky Derby. Both Giacomo and Zenyatta were owned by Jerry Moss, the co-founder of A&M Records, and his wife Ann.

“We liked Steve a lot,” Moss said. “He was just such a charming and welcoming guy. We miss him.”

Mandella said the Mosses helped Willard find the best doctors and assisted with his medical bills.

“Anybody in my position would have done the same thing,” Moss said. “He was just spectacular.”

Mandella said no services were planned.