LOUISVILLE, KY. — Racehorse stories are a lot like fish stories. Every trainer, groom, jockey and tout has one, or two, or a hundred.
They're often exaggerated, growing a little more fantastical with each recitation. But not every racehorse story needs to be embellished. When Joni and Barry Butzow tell the tale of last week's Kentucky Derby, of owning a horse that actually ran in the world's most legendary thoroughbred race, there is magic enough in the actual events.
The Butzows, of Eden Prairie, had been attending the Derby as fans for 20 years before getting there as owners. They hit the equine lottery with a horse they bred: Zozos, a bay colt with a charmingly crooked blaze.
His second-place finish in the Louisiana Derby last March put him into the 20-horse Kentucky Derby field, setting up a memorable week for a couple who got into racing 37 years ago in Shakopee — when Canterbury Park was still Canterbury Downs. The leadup to last Saturday's race was packed with tension, laughter, friendship, family and fancy hats.
And, of course, horses.
On the way from Cincinnati to Louisville, Joni Butzow heard her phone ring. She was riding in a black BMW sedan, alongside driver Donald Golightly, heading down Interstate 71 to Churchill Downs.
Her husband should have been in the car with her. But a positive COVID test kept Barry at home, while Joni flew to Cincinnati to kick off Derby Week with a tour group led by Steve and Dorothy Erban. Monday morning, the tourists boarded a party bus bound for Lexington, while Joni and Dorothy traveled to Louisville for the Kentucky Derby post position draw.
Barry called to let Joni know the hats she ordered had arrived at their home. "They look good,'' he said. "One of them is orange.''
Joni gasped. "Orange?'' she said, with a hint of panic. "The color is supposed to be blush.''
Barry chuckled and looked at the hat again. "OK,'' he said. "I guess it's not really orange.''
Nobody wants surprises during Derby Week, and the Butzows had already fielded a few. The custom-made dress Joni planned to wear on Derby Day did not fit. Barry ordered some shirts that hadn't shown up. His cough turned out to be COVID, putting his trip in jeopardy.
Orange or blush, Joni stopped thinking about her hat as the car approached Louisville. There was some catching up to do with Golightly, the Butzows' regular Derby Week driver for two decades. Talk of kids and grandkids led to reminiscences of Derbies past.
Erban recalled the old shotgun house near Churchill Downs, where they ate pork chops on the porch while waiting for a ride back to the hotel. Skirting that neighborhood on the way to the track, Golightly noted the chain-link fences already blocking some roads.
"These streets are going to be packed on Saturday,'' he said. "They'll be charging $100 to park. Lot of entrepreneurs around here on Derby Day.''
With some time to kill before the post position draw, the group stopped at Wagner's, a 100-year-old institution across the street from the Churchill Downs stables. They walked past the horse-liniment display and sat down in the diner.
Their Derby sandwiches — ham and swiss on a roll — had just arrived when Joni looked at the TV above the soda dispenser. A local station was airing footage of a morning visit to the track.
"That's where you're going to be in a few days,'' Golightly said. "Can you believe it?''
It got better. Joni saw one familiar face, trainer Brad Cox. Then she saw another.
"That's Zozos!'' she said, spying her handsome colt on the screen. Two servers stopped in their tracks, turning toward the TV.
"That's your horse? He's in the Derby?'' one said. "Congratulations!''
By the time Joni left Wagner's, Zozos had two more fans. And Joni had gotten her first inkling of how different this Derby Week was going to be.
The post position draw was held in the dimly lit Aristides Lounge, a quiet spot on the second floor of Churchill Downs clubhouse. Golightly, wearing his Zozos cap, joined Joni and Erban at their designated table. Jeff Drown and his wife, Jill Vouk-Drown, fellow Minnesotans and owners of Zandon, sat one table over.
Before long, Janet Rupp came by to introduce herself to Joni. The owner of each Kentucky Derby entrant is assigned a host, who acts as their personal concierge for the week. Rupp would be helping the Butzows with all the details, such as tickets, logistics and transportation.
"How are you feeling?'' Rupp asked.
"It's a little nerve-racking,'' Joni answered.
In a crowded race like the Kentucky Derby, getting a good post position — ideally between post 5 and post 15 — can be an advantage. The atmosphere felt anxious and joyous all at once, as owners waited to see what hand they would be dealt.
While Barry monitored the draw at home in Eden Prairie, Joni sat, pen in hand, to write down the numbers. On a stage, one man pulled a horse's name from a rack of papers. Another pulled a numbered token from a bottle. Miss Kentucky, Haley Wheeler — wearing her crown and sash — performed the Vanna White role, hanging placards with each owner's silks underneath the number of their post position.
Zandon's name was called. He got post 10, drawing smiles from the Drowns' table. Then came Zozos. Post 19.
Just one spot from the far outside, it wasn't the greatest placement, but Team Zozos shrugged it off. "Our trainer thinks it's OK,'' Joni said. "I think we're all fine with it.''
After the draw, Joni went with Erban, Golightly and Rupp to a reception for the horse owners in the swanky Mansion at Churchill Downs. On the sixth floor of the clubhouse, its outdoor seating area is perched next to the famous Twin Spires, which felt almost close enough to touch.
Some of the most famous names in horse racing were in the room, munching on tuna poke and prime rib and sipping bourbon from cut-glass tumblers. A few hours later, Golightly was back at the wheel of the BMW, whisking Joni and Erban to someplace a little less posh.
They met up with Steve Erban and the rest of the tour group at Rose & Jim's Bar & Grill, a burger-and-beer joint off a two-lane road that rolls through the bluegrass pastures of Lexington. The setting sun bathed the place in orange light. Or maybe it was blush.
Whatever the color, Joni was too tired to notice.
Five days before the Derby, the party bus pulled up to Woodline Farm in Paris, Ky., where Zozos was born in 2019. Owner Beau Lane greeted the tourists with a bottle of Angel's Envy bourbon and a mug, offering a 10 a.m. toast.
Lane, 80, gave Steve Erban a hug and passed the bottle around. "C'mon,'' he said in his Bourbon County drawl. "Let's go see some horses.''
Though the Erbans lead all kinds of trips with their company, Creative Charters, Steve becomes something of an evangelist during the Derby Week tours. He's been a trainer, owner, breeder and promoter during 50 years in thoroughbred racing. In the days leading up to the Derby, he takes his groups to visit horse farms, giving them a peek at the process of building a champion—and perhaps a taste for owning one.
The Erbans are longtime friends with the Butzows, who keep their broodmares at Woodline Farm. While Lane stood by, telling tales, farm manager Michael Orem and his wife, J.B. — Lane's daughter — showed off the Butzows' mares and foals.
Shes So Savvy walked out with her 5-day-old colt, so big it took two men to pull him into the world. Sirenusa stood patiently alongside her energetic, sturdy-legged baby. In another part of the farm, across a creek, the group visited one mare who didn't have a foal this year: Papa's Forest, mother of Zozos.
J.B. handed out peppermints to feed to Papa's Forest, while Steve Erban posed next to her for a picture. He stroked the mare's neck reverently, an evangelist coming face-to-face with the divine.
"Mother of a Derby horse,'' he said. "And it's Barry and Joni's Derby horse. Incredible.''
Late that night, a few in the group stayed up for a nightcap. Following a day of visiting some of the sport's great champions — American Pharoah, Justify, Medaglia d'Oro and Zozos' father, Munnings — Steve Erban spoke the unthinkable.
"What if Zozos wins?'' he said. "We probably won't make our flight back home. We'll still be partying.''
At that point, Barry Butzow was still trying to get to Louisville. He finally arrived Wednesday night, recovered from COVID and ready to see his horse.
The stable area wakes up well before dawn. By the time Butzow got to Churchill Downs Thursday morning, Brad Cox's barn already was bustling. Visitors flocked to check out Kentucky Derby entries Cyberknife, Tawny Port and Zozos, and to take selfies with Mr. Man, the stable's portly black goat.
With just two days to go before the big race, the backside — racing lingo for the stable area — felt like a red-carpet event perfumed with fresh hay and liniment. Hundreds of racing fans congregated around the area where the horses entered the track for morning gallops, straining to get a glimpse of their favorites. Some wore buttons, pins, shirts or caps declaring their allegiances.
Butzow, in a Zozos cap, chatted with Cox's staff. Three barns away, Jeff and Jill Drown stepped out of an SUV to see their horse, Zandon. The nearly black colt was the morning-line favorite at 3-1 and looked the part, a thoroughbred Adonis armed with spirit and speed.
Like the Butzows, the Drowns, of St. Cloud, also were making their Derby debut.
"We're just trying to take in the whole experience,'' Jeff Drown said. "It's exciting to be the favorite. But you want to be the horse that's remembered after the race, not before.''
As morning training wound down, Jill Drown took selfies with Zandon. Zozos, a more easygoing colt, enjoyed a bath. He nuzzled the cheek of his hotwalker, Jordan Freeman, who still couldn't believe what was going to happen in two days.
"The Kentucky Derby,'' he said to Butzow. "This is beyond all imagination.''
Derby Eve is famous for its parties. On the night the blanket of roses is assembled at a Kroger grocery store — about 460 blooms in tiny vials, sewn by hand into a satin backing — Louisville society gathers at black-tie galas.
The Butzows opted for a more low-key evening. Joni had lots to do: greeting their guests, arranging tickets, working with the Erbans to figure out transportation. They chose to have dinner at a cramped Mexican restaurant next to their hotel and slept well that night, exhausted from a week in the eye of the Derby hurricane.
Derby day rushed in with a cool wind and heavy clouds, but no rain. Joni and Barry both dressed in the royal blue of their stable colors, with her new hat complementing the lucky dress she wore when Zozos finished second in the Louisiana Derby. Golightly attached Gophers flags to his rented white van, making it easier to spot as he shuttled the group to and from the track via back roads.
The Butzows spent the day in Winner's Circle suite 19, in the row of trackside boxes reserved for owners of Derby horses. The guest list reflected the journey.
Beau Lane, who helped Barry choose the mating that produced Zozos, was there. So were Michael and J.B. Orem, who attended the colt's birth and nurtured him through his first year. Peggy and Tony Costanzo, who taught him to be a racehorse at their Florida training facility. And John and Karen Ferrigno, owners of ZoZo's, the restaurant in St. John's, U.S. Virgin Islands, that gave the colt his name.
"We love all these people,'' Barry said. "That's the best part of this, sharing it with everyone who helped us get here.''
Around 6 p.m., they went to the stable area for one of the Derby's most treasured traditions: the walkover. The Derby horses make their way from the barns to the paddock by parading along the edge of the track, accompanied by their owners' entourages and the cacophony of 150,000 fevered fans.
Veterans of the walkover describe it as the emotional highlight of their racing careers. Joni usually wept while watching others do it, but she was surprised by her reaction when she stepped onto the Churchill dirt.
"I was so proud of our horse for making it there,'' she said. "I was proud of him for how professional he'd been all week. I was proud to be walking alongside him with our family, and the people who got him to the Derby.
"I thought I would be sobbing. But I was beaming.''
Barry predicted his nerves would kick in once he got to the barn. He spotted Jeff Drown, Zandon's owner, and the two Minnesotans shook hands and exchanged good-luck wishes.
Back in the owners' suite, Barry strained to get a good view as the horses were loaded into the starting gate. The bell rang. Twenty horses rumbled down the opening straightaway, jostling for position, tugging at the reins.
For a moment, Zozos poked his head in front, leading the charge in the Kentucky Derby. The Butzows felt their hopes rise, then diminish as they saw the breakneck pace of the first quarter-mile. Zozos was caught up in an unsustainable speed duel, with the leaders flying through the opening quarter in 21.78 seconds.
"I knew we were in trouble immediately,'' Barry said. "That pace was so quick. He shouldn't have been second or third at that point; he should have been farther back. But then you start thinking, 'Well, maybe. Maybe.'
"We were good for a mile, and then we knew we weren't going to get much further. But to have his name called three or four times during the race? To hear, 'Zozos is third, Zozos is fourth?' That's pretty exciting.''
At the end, Zozos was 10th, right in the middle of the pack. Zandon finished third. And the 148th Kentucky Derby produced a horse story that sounded too fantastical to be true. Rich Strike, a last-minute entry that went off at 80-1, stormed up the rail to seize the roses.
The next morning, the party bus made its final run. On the way to the Cincinnati airport, Joni opened a box sent by her daughter, Jaylee Maruk. It was packed with cookies in the shape of a horse's head, decorated to look just like Zozos.
Freeman, the colt's hotwalker, called to thank the Butzows for inviting him to the race. "How's our horse?'' Barry asked, echoing the question of everyone on the bus.
He hung up and relayed the answer. "He's good,'' Barry said. "He's giving Jordan kisses.''
Once the Butzows got home to Eden Prairie, they unpacked their bags, stuffed with memorabilia from the trip. Barry tried to watch the Wild in Game 4 of the NHL playoffs but fell asleep, drained of all the Derby Week adrenaline.
There will be more horse stories unfolding this summer. The Butzows will have a stable at Canterbury Park, which begins its season Wednesday. Zozos is expected to continue running in prestigious events.
It will be hard to top the tale of last week, eight glorious days that need no embellishment.
"What a dream,'' Joni said. "Even [Monday], I had times where I was thinking, 'What just happened?'
"The whole thing was just unreal. We were in the Kentucky Derby.''