LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Last September on the Western Slope of Colorado, Jeff Drown went hunting for elk with a 23-year-old guide named Zandon Starks.
Drown, who owns a contracting company in Minnesota, had mentioned while riding back to the base camp that he owned racehorses — something Starks, admittedly, knew nothing about.
“Jeff said he had one needing a name,” Starks said by phone Wednesday. “The guy I work for jokingly said, ‘I bet there hasn’t been a horse named Zandon,’ and Jeff had asked if that was alright with me. I’m like, ‘Sure.’ I didn’t think anything of it.”
The racehorse that needed a name turned out to be pretty good. And on Saturday, Zandon is likely to enter the starting gate as the favorite in the Kentucky Derby where he can make that unusual name a worldwide sensation.
“I live in a small town and don’t get much attention, but I’ve traveled all over the U.S. and everywhere I go, nobody’s heard of the name,” said Starks, who will be one of Drown’s guests at the race Saturday. “I guess most everyone will now.”
These are the kinds of stories that make the Kentucky Derby magical. For all the bad news in the sport lately — including the fact that last year’s winner Medina Spirit was disqualified over a doping test — this race is not an exclusive prize for the gold-plated bluegrass farms and old money American dynasties. It’s been won by shabbily bred horses from Venezuela and New Mexico, by regular folks pooling $17,500 together to buy a colt that became Seattle Slew and small farms that only breed a few horses a year.
And if Zandon wins Saturday, it will belong to an owner who got into the game at pretty much the lowest level and still only owns a small stable of horses in contrast to the big conglomerates and worldwide operations that buy scores of expensive yearlings.
Drown and his wife, Jill, have come a long way from their start at Canterbury Park in the Twin Cities. But even so, it’s remarkable that the favorite for Saturday’s 148th Kentucky Derby comes from an owner who has won just a single race this calendar year.
That win, when Zandon emerged from a rough-and-tumble ride in the Blue Grass Stakes on April 9, has created a remarkable level of hype around the lightly raced colt — so much so that Drown said his phone doesn’t stop buzzing these days and he can’t walk more than a few feet around the Churchill backstretch without getting congratulated by the biggest names in the sport.
“It (didn’t seem realistic) with the first horses we had,” Drown said Wednesday after Zandon logged another picture-perfect gallop over the Churchill track. “But as time went by and we started developing a more serious program, it started to come into focus that it was really something we’d like to see happen. Jill and I talked about going to the Kentucky Derby, but I always said I don’t want to go until we have a horse in it. So here we are.”
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Still, Drown runs a tiny operation compared to Winchell Thoroughbreds, which owns second-choice Epicenter and has campaigned numerous champions over the years, or a group like Starlight Racing that puts together significant capital through ownership syndicates.
Drown has done things on a much smaller scale, with runners that made just 21 starts last year under his name and another 18 in a partnership with his friend Don Rachel. But ever since winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf race in 2019 with Structor — by far Drown’s biggest success until Zandon came along — the focus has been on small numbers but high quality.
“It’s been a great team so far,” said trainer Chad Brown, who is also a big part of this story as one of a handful of trainers in this race that are considered among the best in the game but haven’t yet won the Derby.
Though he’s just 43 years old, Brown has been operating at the highest level for more than a decade with a victory in the 2017 Preakness and four Eclipse Awards as the nation’s outstanding trainer. Much of his success has come in major grass races, but a Kentucky Derby win would complete the legacy that his mentor and training legend Bobby Frankel didn’t live long enough to achieve.
“The last few years I worked with him, the Derby became a high priority,” Brown said of Frankel, who finished second in the race twice before he passed away in 2009. “When I first came around, it was like ‘Ehh, the Derby, a lot of horses get ruined in it and it’s not my thing.’ And then when he had those horses close to winning, it became a very high priority for him and really it’s the only race that eluded him in a perfect career. So it would be an honor to win it for him.”
And Drown would relish the opportunity to give Brown his first Derby winner.
“He deserves it,” Drown said. “He’s obviously an expert trainer, and he’s really conscientious about the horses. If there’s any little thing that’s wrong, he backs off and sends them back to the farm and we give them the time they need to stay healthy and happy and we just have a lot of confidence in him.”
Meanwhile, the human Zandon will take it all in, unsure exactly what Saturday will bring as he attends his first horse race while seeing his name everywhere. Part of the intrigue in being associated with the Derby favorite is learning a little bit about the sport over the past few weeks. Still, Starks, who works as a hunting guide seasonally and on a ranch the rest of the year, has never seen anything like 150,000 people yelling and screaming as the horses thunder down the stretch of the most exciting two minutes in sports.
“I have no idea what to expect,” he said. “I’ve been looking at the dress code and it’s a little fancier than I would normally wear. But it’ll be a fun experience for sure.”