All last week and this week, Mark Coomes has been writing an amazing series taking you “on the backside” at Churchill Downs before the Derby.
This past weekend, I got to see the ponies from an even different perspective, a perspective typically enjoyed by only one guy– Steve Buttleman, the official bugler of Churchill Downs.
Linda Golden and I have been hosting a bi-weekly podcast for the better part of a year now. Louisville, Not Kentucky features profiles of people and events, arts-and-culture sorts of things, food… a lot of laughing.
Our nineteenth episode was our Derby episode and a lesson in “you might as well ask.”
A listener said we should try to get the Official Bugler for Churchill Downs to record with us. Linda wrote him and asked, and he showed up! In traditional regalia and all.
Turns out Buttleman may very well be the nicest guy in Louisville. He loves his job. He loves his family. And he loves this city. He’s an Eagle Scout and a scout leader. He’s even diplomatic when it comes to Kentucky Rivalries: he’s got one kid at U of L and one kid at UK.
When he finished the podcast (you should listen to it, if I do say so myself, the second half features Derby songs by Le Petomane Theatre Ensemble), he thanked us– thanked us– and told us that we should give him a call the next time we were at the track.
This weekend was opening night at Churchill Downs and Linda and I were lucky enough to be invited to the Sky Terrace by Creative Alliance on behalf of the Downs. We got gussied up, Linda even bought herself a fancy hat, and headed off to the track.
Opening Night was “Hollywood” themed. If you went in through particular gates you could “walk the Hollywood Style Red Carpet” and have your picture taken.
I’m not really sure I want to know for whom that kind of thing is a draw.
The Sky Terrace was packed, but man, Churchill Downs knows how to throw a comfort food, Southern-style buffet. New York Strip and Roast Turkey. Some kind of divine lima bean concoction. Garlic mashed potatoes. Several salads. Gooey desserts. And plenty of all of it. If I hadn’t been rocking the Spanx that night, or if I’d paid the $59.95 for the Sky Terrace tickets and meal, I would have squeezed in another helping or two.
After we ate, and after I failed to find a return on an across the board bet on horse #4, we decided to see if Buttleman really meant what he said. Linda texted the number he’d given us. And sure enough, within minutes we had an invite to the bugler’s pagoda on the infield and directions on how to get there (not easy).
The empty but Derby-prepped infield is creepy. Like a carnival after hours. But seeing the track lit up at night with the stands full of crowds, I’d never seen Churchill look prettier.
The bugler’s pagoda is a two-story roundish house dead-center in the track. It vaguely reminds me of the inside of a New England lighthouse with the beadboard, chipping white painted walls. It’s drafty and cold when it’s cold out. It’s hot when it’s hot out. Buttleman’s been through a number of AC units even recently.
Buttleman has pictures of his kids on the walls– old pictures. As I said, his kids are in college and these pictures are of broadly-grinning pre-teens.
It’s a cute little structure, beats the hell out of working in a cubicle, I imagine.
One thing we learned about Buttleman during the podcast is that he finds various ways to entertain himself during the downtime between his call-to-the-post duties. He reads a lot. He’s spent some time on a sewing machine doing work for his boy scout troop. He also spends a lot of time crafting, he said.
I wasn’t sure what to make of that, but sure enough when we entered the pagoda we saw a whole table full of jewelry and jewelry-making paraphernalia. Plastic chests full of craft supplies are stacked under the window. The man has a whole “pagoda industry” running out there on the infield. (I’m sorry. That pun is terrible.)
Linda, her husband and I chatted with Buttleman for a while about night racing and his little building and his duties. Without missing a beat or interrupting the conversation, he switched an outside light on, tootled on his bugle for a second to warm up, and then stepped outside and played the iconic Call to Post.
And in 15 seconds he was back inside. picking up where he left off.
Watching the turf race from the infield is about as close as I ever want to be to racehorses at full sprint.
It’s every horse racing cliche imaginable: the thundering hooves, the thrill of wait, the rush of excitement. It’s beautiful, but it’s also terrifying,
And when it was over, Buttleman took our picture, told us to pick out a pair of earrings to take home, bundled us into his blue mini van (it was pouring rain at that point) and drove us back to the Downs.
Hugs all around.
We didn’t stop to watch more races. We didn’t even discuss it. We just walked straight back to the car. There was no way in hell– barring a superfecta payout– our night was going to get any better.
I’ll leave you with some wise words from the man himself.
One thing I like to do on Oaks and Derby Day– my little house gets pretty busy about an hour before racetime– so I always take a walk and go up the turf track. And the fact that I get to walk up the turf track is incredible in itself. When I get to the top of the stretch, I turn around and look at the twin spires and all the hundreds and thousands of people having a great time. And usually it’s sunny. And I just think, God, how did I get here? What did I do to deserve this? And there’s really no answer. So I just ask God to help me to not screw up, one more time.
– Steve Buttleman, on the Derby Episode of Louisville, Not Kentucky.