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The favorite and the dark horse: Minnesota horses poised for historic Kentucky Derby

Only four horses with Minnesota owners have ever qualified for the Kentucky Derby, including Zozos and Zandon this year.

MINNEAPOLIS — When the Kentucky Derby returns to Churchill Downs this weekend, it will offer Minnesotans a chance to resume a statewide pastime: rooting for anyone with Minnesota ties.

For the first time ever, two Minnesota-owned horses have qualified for the Derby. Even having one Minnesota-owned horse in the race is incredibly rare.

"It's the third and fourth time ever," said Barry Butzow, who owns one of the horses, Zozos, with his wife Joni. "And we just so happen to have two of them in the same year with horses that begin with the letter Z."

Zozos is a bit of a dark horse to win the Derby, at 20-1 odds. His Minnesota counterpart, Zandon, is the current betting favorite, at 3-1.

Despite sharing a Minnesota connection, the two horses have very different styles and have also taken different paths to the starting line.

For the Butzows, from Eden Prairie, Zozos is a thoroughbred they bred themselves.

"He was our baby," Joni Butzow said. "It's like taking one of your kids to the Derby. It's pretty special."

It's even more special because Zozos is their first horse to ever qualify for the Derby, after racing countless horses during their nearly 40-year, Hall-of-Fame career at Canterbury Park.

"If it weren't for Canterbury, we wouldn't even be into racing," Barry Butzow said. "I started in 1985, when Canterbury opened. We bought one horse. Unfortunately the horse won its first race, and so you're in for life."

Despite the Butzow's extensive racing history, Zozos is very new to competition himself.

"There's only one other horse in the race that's had less races than we've had," Barry Butzow said.

After winning his first ever race in January, Zozos really made strides in race No. 2. After setting the pace early, he took charge late, and turned heads in the process.

"He just stood out," Barry Butzow said. "That's when he got picked up by all the horse media as the 'hot shot' or 'up-and-coming' horse."

Zozos qualified for the Derby in just his third race. Despite being passed down the stretch by another Derby favorite, Epicenter, he made another push just before finishing second.

"He was about two lengths behind and closing," Barry Butzow said. "It'll be interesting."

Interesting also describes the journey of the other Minnesota-owned horse - and current Derby favorite - Zandon.

"He was a bit of a late bloomer, if you will, as a 2-year-old," said owner Jeff Drown, from St. Cloud.

Drown bought Zandon at auction, but didn't really know what kind of horse he had until he saw him compete.

"Those early races taught him a lot," Drown said. "He was coming from behind in a lot of races and he got bumped a lot. He's taken a lot of dirt, all things that young horses usually struggle with, and he's fought through all of that." 

That was all on display during the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes in April.

Zandon was at the very back of the pack at the end of the backstretch, but quickly began picking off the field as they entered the turn. He moved through all the traffic and began pulling away from the field well ahead of the finish line.

"To have a horse that's in a top-class form and training at the level he is at, winning the grade-one Bluegrass in his last race gives you a lot of confidence that we'll have a good shot," Drown said.

Racing analyst Kevin Gorg says Minnesotans can't go wrong with either horse. Whether you favor a favorite who closes fast, or delight in a dark horse who runs out front, they provide an exciting contrast.

"Both horses have looked spectacular leading up to this race so it's exciting," Gorg said. "Whether it's all the speed horses hanging in there, or it faces the closers, if you're team Minnesota you've got one of each."

If either one wins, they'd join Unbridled in 1990 as the only other Minnesota winner, though it will be hard to top the celebration by Minnesotan Frances Genter, who was 92 at the time.

"That was a huge moment that is legendary," Barry Butzow said. "You're going to see that clip on the air 50 times this weekend, 'Mrs. Genter, you're going to win the Derby!' It was great. It's so exciting."

Exciting just to have a horse - make that two horses - in the race.

"It's awfully special," Drown said.

"Both of us tear up," Joni Butzow said. "We know how much work it takes to get a horse there. Now we're just hoping (Zozos) stays calm with 150,000 people there."

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