For Barry and Joni Butzow, attending the Kentucky Derby is a treasured rite of spring. Every year, the Eden Prairie couple head to the Bluegrass State with friends, visit their broodmares and foals in the Lexington area and spend the first Saturday in May watching America's most storied horse race.

They'll do it again this week, with one enormous upgrade. The Butzows will be sitting in a Churchill Downs owners' box, cheering for their colt, Zozos, one of two Minnesota-owned horses set to run in the 148th Derby.

"We usually do the trip with about 15 to 18 people,'' Barry Butzow said. "There are at least 60 coming this time with different groups. With two horses and all these people, Minnesota's going to be well represented.''

It's been 20 years since a horse with Minnesota connections has run in the Kentucky Derby. On Saturday, Zandon, owned by Jeff Drown of St. Cloud, is expected to be among the favorites. Zozos also is highly regarded, making several handicappers' lists of top contenders.

“Most people don't understand just how hard it is to actually get a horse to the Kentucky Derby.”
Jeff Drown, owner of Zandon

The Butzows and Drown both got their starts at Canterbury Park in Shakopee, buying horses with friends so they could gather at the track and watch them race. That led to purchasing higher-end horses with grander ambitions. While they've run in top-level events such as the Breeders' Cup, both still have stables at Canterbury, which opens its season May 18.

First, they will take a little side trip to Kentucky, looking to score a garland of roses.

"It's very exciting for Minnesota racing,'' Drown said. "We knew our horse was a good horse. And Barry and Joni have a nice horse.

"And both of them start with the letter Z. What are the odds of that? Maybe it's the Minnesota exacta.''

Unlike the Butzows, Drown will be attending the Kentucky Derby for the first time. He decided long ago he would not go until he had a horse in the race.

He thought Structor, owned in partnership with Don Rachel, might be the one. Winner of the $1 million Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf, the colt was a prospect for the 2020 Derby until a health issue sidelined him. A few months after that disappointment, Drown purchased a yearling colt for $170,000 at the Keeneland sale in Kentucky.

Zandon, named for a guide who led Drown on a successful hunting trip, won his debut last October for trainer Chad Brown at Belmont Park. He's finished in the money in all four career starts, with earnings of $713,000. Three weeks ago, Zandon won the $1 million Blue Grass Stakes, rallying from last place with a performance that landed him among the Derby favorites.

The Butzows had to wait a little longer to know their Derby fate. They bred Zozos, and trainer Brad Cox had high hopes for the colt after a 10-length allowance victory in February.

Zozos ran a strong second in the $1 million Louisiana Derby on March 26 to earn 40 qualifying points toward the Kentucky Derby. But with several more prep races to go, he wasn't assured of the top-20 finish in the points standings that would lock up a Derby berth. The 40 points held up, putting Zozos 17th on the list.

"We went to that race with no expectations of getting into the Derby,'' Barry Butzow said. "Afterward, the trainer and jockey both said, 'You're going to get in.' But then you sit there for two weeks, doing the math after every race to see where you stand.''

Last week, Drown and the Butzows were counting people rather than points. The Butzows' traveling party had grown to 38 friends and family members, plus several more coming to Kentucky as part of a tour group. Drown chartered a plane for 40 — including employees of his company, Lyon Contracting — and expects 15 more to join him and his wife, Jill Vouk-Drown, and their five children.

After choosing to defer a Derby trip until one of his own horses was in the race, Drown is ready for the ride. "I was starting to wonder for a little while whether we were ever going to go,'' he said. "Most people don't understand just how hard it is to actually get a horse to the Kentucky Derby.''

The Butzows, who have raced at Canterbury since the track opened in 1985, know just what Drown means. Having a horse they bred in the Derby, Joni said, is "like having one of your kids go from Little League to the big leagues.''

The only thing better is being there with another Minnesota owner, doubling the excitement for their home state.

"We're so happy for Minnesota and Canterbury Park,'' Joni Butzow said. "They get to share this with two owners. It's wonderful.''