From the time Canterbury Downs opened in 1985, a man who goes by the name of Bozo has been attending the track to place bets and make new friends “nearly every weekend” since, he says. After first getting a glimpse of the Triple Crown races in his childhood, then discovering live racing, Bozo says he eventually got into simulcast betting and the “rest is history.”
While Bozo may spend many of his weekend afternoons at the track, he is often busy with the bar he owns in downtown Shakopee, The Pullman Club. After frequenting the bar for years, he learned that it was going to be for sale. Bozo, whose real name is Bret Hoffman, purchased the bar in 1988, when he was just 26-years-old. He has not only seen many horsemen walk through the doors, but has also “made many friends along the way,” he said. Richard Grunder, now Tampa Bay Downs track announcer and a jockey agent at Canterbury, happened to be one of the first people he met at the track. “Bozo is one of those people who really loves racing,” Grunder commented. “It is hard to find someone who lives and breathes the sport like he does.”
The Pullman has long been a refuge for racetrackers, a place to spend an afternoon or evening, away from the hard work at the track. Grooms, trainers, jockeys, many with familiar names like Mike Smith and Bill Mott, would visit in the early days of racing in Minnesota and many continue to do so today. Now one finds TVG on a television screen somewhere, and if Saratoga is running, like it is currently, you can bet Bozo is watching and likely has a wager.
While Bozo was working at the bar one summer day in ’91, two people in their early twenties, one an exercise rider and the other a hot walker, came through his doors. The pair worked for Mott and were sent to town to tend to Richman who was racing in the $250,000 Grade 2 Minnesota Derby, but didn’t have any money. In need of cash to make it through the week, Mott sent them to Bozo knowing he would help them out. Sure enough Bozo pulled out two one-hundred dollar bills for each of them and Mott paid him back a week later. “I had to laugh at these two young kids coming into the bar and asking a complete stranger to lend them money,” Bozo said. “It’s moments like that, that come out of nowhere, that make my life exciting,” he added.
During the summer months, when live racing at Canterbury Park is in full swing, Bozo says that business picks up and local patrons often come to The Pullman to meet with the horsemen for a pre-race drink and to ask for tips on how to bet on that given race day. “Some of my customers really get into it and think of the jockeys and trainers as celebrities,” said Bozo.
After owning The Pullman Club for 30 years, Bozo explained that racing at Canterbury has brought a unique crowd of people from all walks of life into the bar. “I have had the chance to meet so many amazing people over the years and I think part of that is thanks to the racetrack,” he said.
Bozo says his favorite part about horse racing is the people that he gets to be around. “Most of the time when I am at the track I already have all of my bets placed for the day and I just sit and spend time with people.” He says that being around the horsemen and getting to know everyone is a unique experience.
Even though Bozo now visits the track as a fan, he has his fair share of stories from the backside. He got his first glimpse of the stables when he began hot-walking for Larry Boyle years ago. “I love the horses,” Bozo said. “I gained a huge amount of respect for the animals after working with them.”
Though Bozo has never owned a racehorse of his own, he came close when he and his brother thought about purchasing a horse named Grass Powered for just $3,000. After giving the investment a lot of thought, the two decided not to go for it. “Of course, after we turned down the offer, the horse turned around and won the next four races it ran,” he recalled.
After working on the backside, almost buying a horse, and becoming a regular at the wagering windows, naturally the only thing left for Bozo to do was to become a jockey. In 1991 he did just that. After a month of having his racetrack friends try to talk him into climbing onto a horse for the first time, Bozo finally agreed. One morning, when no one was around, the group called him down to get saddled up to race two of his friends. After winning the ‘race’, which his friends made sure he did, Bozo made his way to the winner’s circle where the track photographer was waiting to get a photo. “I finally got my four minutes of fame,” he said. The horse was named Bozo’s Fantasy, for obvious reasons, and the legendary story went down in history. The winning photo still hangs in Bozo’s office and reminds him of “the glory days.”
Now on race days you can often find Bozo “hanging out” at the Budweiser Beer Gardens on track level with his close friends.
One of those friends, horse owner Tony Didier, finds Bozo to be “such a genuine person.” Didier, often in town from Nebraska to watch his horses race, never fails to stop downtown. “We always have a lot of fun at The Pullman. The atmosphere is always really upbeat and enjoyable there.”