A horse owned by Eden Prairie residents will be among the field of 20 three-year-olds running in the Kentucky Derby on May 7. Zozos, the colt owned by Barry and Joni Butzow, qualified for the Derby at the March 26 Louisiana Derby, his third race.
“We were overwhelmed” when watching that finish from the stands, Barry Butzow said. “He’d only had two races going in, and he was running against a whole bunch of experienced horses.” By placing second in the Louisiana Derby, Zozos accumulated 40 qualifying points for the Kentucky Derby, the minimum needed to be part of the prestigious race. The winner of the Louisiana Derby – who passed Zozos to take the lead – was Epicenter, currently considered to be the favorite to win at Kentucky.
“I’m still kind of in disbelief,” Joni Butzow said. “I don’t think it’ll sink in until we actually go there and do the walk that he’s actually in the Kentucky Derby.”
A Kentucky Derby tradition, the walk has owners, along with family and friends they’ve invited, accompanying the horse from the barn area and around the racetrack while the crowd sings “My Old Kentucky Home.” “We cry every year,” Joni said. “I don’t know what we’re going to do this year.”
Although this is their first horse to run in the Kentucky Derby itself, the Butzows have made the walk before. “We just did it as practice, because we had another horse running at Churchill Downs,” Barry said. Their horse which ran in that 2016 race at the Louisville racetrack was Papa’s Forest, the mother of Zozos. “I think that was an omen, that it’s her son that we’re going to be walking with” this year, Joni said.
Bred in Kentucky
Papa’s Forest is one of several breeding mares the Butzows own; all of them are retired racehorses. “We kind of believe that you need a mother that also has run,” Joni said. Zozos’s father, Munnings, is also a retired racehorse.
“A wonderful farm in Paris, Kentucky, raises and takes care of all our mothers, babies, weanlings, and that’s where Zozos was born,” Joni said. The Butzows make a practice of visiting Woodline Farm in the spring, generally before the Kentucky Derby, to see the mares and new foals, and again in the fall to watch the progress as they grow.
Their recollections of Zozos as a baby are that “he was a big boy,” Barry said, with “very unusual markings,” Joni added. Zozos is a dark bay (aka dark brown with black mane, tail, and legs) horse, with an offset white blaze on his muzzle that covers one nostril.
As a yearling, Zozos then went to Samerin Oaks, a training facility in Florida, where he trained with Tony and Peg Costanzo. (They sold their facility in fall 2021.) At that age, Joni said, “They’re mature enough to start learning how to have a saddle on their back,” and, Barry added, “just learning how to be a racehorse.” He described both Woodline Farm and Samerin as “very hands-on, family farm, touchy-feely environments.”
It was while Zozos was in training in Florida that the Butzows started getting reports that said he moved beautifully and did everything right.
Zozos, a “chill” horse
“With [race]horses, they have to be smart,” Barry said. “It’s like baseball players: it’s pure talent to a point, but there’s an intelligence about the really, really good ones. They’re just brighter than some of the other horses.”
As Zozos began his racing career, he won his first race, a six-furlong sprint at Fair Grounds Race Course in New Orleans on Jan. 23. “By his breeding, everybody says he should be better [at]shorter [distances], but I think he’s defying what he’s supposed to be,” Barry said.
For Zozos’s second race, a 1-1/16 mile event at Oaklawn in Hot Springs, Arkansas, on Feb. 11, “the jockey just said, ‘OK, let’s run,’” Barry said. Zozos won that race by 10-1/4 lengths.
Many three-year-old horses can be excitable, the Butzows said, noting that Cyberknife, the winner of the Arkansas Derby, threw his jockey after that race. Zozos, in contrast, is a very relaxed horse, they said. At the Louisiana Derby racetrack, “he was so sweet, he was playing with his ball. He’s just very chill,” Joni said.
Horse is named for restaurant
Brad Cox, the trainer for Zozos and seven other horses the Butzows own, is also the trainer for Cyberknife. Both will be running in the 10-furlong (1-1/4 mile) Kentucky Derby, with the jockey who rode Zozos for his Louisiana Derby win slated to ride Cyberknife on May 7.
At the time of this interview, Zozos’s Kentucky Derby jockey had not yet been determined. (Manny Franco has since been named.) While the Butzows are involved in decisions like jockey selection, as well as deciding which races a horse should participate in, ultimately, “you have to trust his judgment,” Barry said of Cox. “If I think I know more than the trainers, then I should be training, I shouldn’t be hiring.”
He takes a similar approach when making breeding selections, getting experts’ advice on which stallions should be mated with which mares.
As owners, however, the Butzows do get to name the horses. Zozos is named after Zozo’s, one of their favorite restaurants on the island of St. John’s in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where they spend a portion of the winters. The horses have to be named by Feb. 1 of their second year, with the names subject to approval by the Jockey Club, the governing body of the horse racing industry.
“It’s a challenge,” Joni said – one of the rules is an 18-character limit, including spaces and punctuation, in the names. “We just love to get friends involved” in suggestions, she said.
It all began at Canterbury
A bigger group than usual of the Butzows’ family and friends will be attending the Kentucky Derby this year, including the owner of Zozo’s restaurant. It is largely the people that keep them interested in horse racing, they said.
“We wouldn’t do anything if Canterbury didn’t have a live racetrack. We would’ve been out of it,” Barry said. “Canterbury’s the only reason we’re still in horses.”
Barry’s been involved with Canterbury Park in Shakopee since its start in 1985. At that time, he and a group of friends pooled together to buy a horse “for the heck of it. It was a thing to do, something new and exciting,” he said. “The horse won its first race – which is not necessarily a good thing, because then you go, ‘well, that’s cool, let’s buy two more.’”
When Canterbury closed in 1992, he sold all his horses, but then got involved again when the Shakopee track reopened later in the 1990s. Barry and Joni had their first date at Canterbury.
Neither had a horse background. Barry visited his aunt and uncle’s Nebraska farm and their field ponies as a child, but he grew up in New York City – where his dad let him and his siblings bet on televised horse races. “He’d be the bookie, and we’d bet on the horses, 10 cents a race,” Barry said. “I didn’t have any horse background at all until we met,” Joni said. But after that first trip to Canterbury, “I’ve just had a passion for them,” she said.
At that time, they became friends with and learned a lot from the owners of Kissoon Thoroughbreds, a Minnesota horse breeding farm. “We still have seven Minnesota-bred horses,” Barry said. Currently, the Butzows own approximately 40 horses (some of their mares were still pregnant at the time of this interview).
“It was sort of a maturation process as we grew up with the industry,” Barry said. In addition to moving to buying and breeding horses in Kentucky, racing elsewhere, and working with additional trainers, Joni at one point ran the Don MacBeth Memorial Jockey Fund, a national fundraising effort for injured jockeys, and the Butzows have contributed to efforts at Canterbury to build a chapel for backside racetrack workers and provide translation equipment for English language learners there. They were inducted into the Canterbury Park Hall of Fame in 2019.
How will Zozos do in the Derby?
“Everybody looks at racing from the stands at the races,” Barry said. “Ninety-five percent of all the work is done on the backside of the racetrack, and you sort of get caught up in that.”
Some of the Butzows’ horses will be stabled at Canterbury and run there when the live racing season begins in Shakopee. “Some of them may not be Kentucky quality; maybe they shouldn’t be running for $100,000,” Barry said. “You want to put them where they can compete.”
And what of Zozos’s competition odds for the Kentucky Derby? Currently, he’s ranked 17th in the field of 20 three-year-olds.
While post position – where the horse gets placed in the starting gate – will be important, “I think he’ll do fine,” Barry said. (Post position draws will occur May 2.) “He’s got enough speed, he can keep his own. I think he’s intelligent enough that he’s not going to get overly excited about 150,000 people.”
Barry says he does play the ponies himself, “but very, very small. I’m a $5 bettor. I already bet enough on the horse!”
Nora Takes provided research assistance for this article.