Curious Louisville

As part of our Curious Derby series, we went out to chat with Churchill Downs’ official bugler, Steve Buttleman, about the origins of the Call to the Post that he plays before each race. But you had a lot more questions for Steve. Here are your questions, and his answers.

Question: How do you know when it’s time to play the Call to the Post? Is there a signal?

Answer: I can see on the monitor when riders are up. I know I have about a minute or so as they come through the tunnel. And then when I see the lead rider come out with his red jacket on, I know that it’s time to go out and get ready. And then I usually play the Call to the Post when the first racehorse touches the track.

It’s not an exact science. Sometimes if we have two-year-olds and they come out and they’re acting up, I won’t play until the horse settles down, because I figure, why add more chaos when the horse is already startled? But for the most part, I play around 10 minutes to post, when the first horse touches the track.

Q: Is the Call to Post really a recording? Why don’t we see your fingers moving?

A: It’s in the key of C. There are no flats or sharps in it. On bugle calls, you don’t use any valves — a bugle doesn’t have valves. I have a herald trumpet that I play it on, because a lot of times when I’m out, I play the National Anthem or “My Old Kentucky Home,” so this horn serves both functions, instead of having to have a trumpet and then carry the bugle, too.

But when I do the Call to the Post, I don’t move my fingers. So it looks like I’m cheating, but I’m not. Now some tracks do have a recording, but I think it’s important that we do it live. The reason you don’t see our fingers move is because it’s a bugle call, and it’s all done with your lips and how you move your air.

Q: What other music do you play at the track?

A: On Memorial Day, I do different patriotic songs, and also the service songs for the five branches of our armed forces. And then on closing day, generally I do songs that have to do with goodbye. After I do the call to the post I’ll do a song like “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do,” or “Think of Me,” or something like that, just to have some fun. And then in the fall on our closing day, I do holiday music after the Call to the Post.

Now at Keeneland, I play songs for the kids, too, if I’m over there on the grandstand side. You know, like “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” “ABCs”, “Let It Go,” my newest one is “Moana.” I figured I needed to add some new repertoire, because the kids know if I’ve played something for them before!

Q: You play at Keeneland too… isn’t that kind of like cheating on us?

A: Well, as it turned out, when Bucky retired at Keeneland — he was there 54 years, which is amazing — they contacted me to see if I would be a good fit. It’s a little bit different job description than here, just because I’m so much closer to the fans there. Where here I’m in the infield, over at Keeneland I’m trackside.

Sometimes I get the two tracks mixed up when I’m talking about one or the other. But you know, we’re all in the same business, and we don’t compete with each other. Keeneland ends on a Friday afternoon and Churchill starts up on a Saturday night. I’m aware of trying to represent each track individually, but at the same time, we’re all in the same game together.

Q: Do you wear a different outfit at Keeneland?

A: Yes, it’s a green jacket with some gold trim and black sleeves and pockets, and a top hat. And actually I play two different songs there, too. At Keeneland we play “Boots & Saddles” when the horses come out onto the track, and then at two minutes to post, I play “Assembly,” which is another bugle call that signals that the horses are coming up on the gate.

Q: What do you do in between the races?

A: Lately I’ve been making bracelets and earrings, and decorating horseshoes. And then also practicing, and surfing the internet, doing crosswords, anything.

Q: Wait, you’re in here making jewelry? How did you start doing that?

A: I was looking for something that a guy would want to wear, and I really couldn’t find anything. So that’s what got me started, and then I started making other stuff for my wife, and nieces. And my daughter suggested that a lot of times when girls buy bracelets they want to buy earrings to match, so then I started making earrings. I’m looking forward to doing a craft show at some point, where I’ll get to sell them.

Q: What’s in the tiny house?

A: Not a whole lot, now. They’ve renovated it within the last two years. Before, I had kind of accumulated a lot of craft material and Cub Scout stuff, and so I moved everything out before they renovated it, so now I try to keep everything tucked away and I mainly have some beads and stuff to work on bracelets and earrings, and some horseshoes to decorate, and usually my laptop, and maybe some music to play, and stuff to read. And some food for Oaks and Derby.

Laura Ellis | wfpl.org
Laura Ellis | wfpl.org

Q: How long have you been playing?

A: I started playing trumpet or cornet in fifth grade, and I’ve been here at Churchill for 23 years.

Q: What is your memory of the worst weather you’ve played the Call in, and do you ever get nervous because you’re holding a big piece of metal?

A: Yeah, it is a little concerning! A couple years ago we had horrible storms that came through and we actually had hail that came down. It was raining so hard, I couldn’t even see the grandstand from the pagoda [note: the pagoda is the real name of the tiny house]. We didn’t race in that, but we waited for the lightning to subside. That’s probably the worst I’ve played in. But I also figure if the jockeys can ride in it, I can play in it. And actually it’s kind of fun. And sometimes I’ll play “Singin’ in the Rain,” or “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head,” just to have fun with it.

Q: What is your ringtone? Is it the bugle? Please tell me it’s the bugle.

A: (Laughter) No, unfortunately it’s not! It’s just a regular, boring ringtone.

Q: Other than the bugle, what instruments do you think would be good at playing the Call to the Post?

A: Maybe French horn? Trumpet or bugle’s the best, but I’ve heard it done on saxophone, piano, kazoo, guitar. But I think probably French horn. Maaaybe trombone.

Q: Have you ever used the bugle call to wake someone up at home?

A: Actually with one of the radio stations, parents have written in and they choose one, and I’ve gone to several different kids’ houses on the first day of school, and we do it live, where I play the Call to the Post to wake them up! It’s always hilarious.

Q: Does that outfit give you all-access around the track?

A: Not necessarily. There are certain elevators that you have to have an ID card or something to get into. On Oaks and Derby Day, I generally stay in the pagoda, because I’m afraid if I venture out too far, I won’t get back. So I’ve never tried to get up to Millionaire’s Row or the Mansion or anything on Oaks and Derby Day. I have a feeling I probably could, but there’s also some safety protocols in place.

Laura Ellis | wfpl.org

Steve inside the pagoda (aka “the tiny house”)

Q: Have you ever been late playing the Call, or missed one altogether?

A: Two Derbies ago, I went over to the suite that’s right next to the pagoda between one of the races. Because they were clapping after I played, and I thought that was really nice. They made the Derby day really fun, so I went over there just to thank them for clapping, and see if they wanted to take any pictures. Well, the horses started coming through the tunnel, and I was still over in the suite, so I ran over here to do the Call to the Post, and the local TV station caught me running to the pagoda, and they said something like, “Wow, now that’s really being late to work!”

Q: Have you ever played the Call to the Post in a different key?

A: One Halloween I played it in a minor key. I don’t know why — I just had a wild idea, and I played Call to the Post in a minor key, and then I did this evil laugh on the microphone after I did it. It went over OK! I wasn’t sure how it would go because I didn’t really ask permission, but it luckily went fine.

Q: What do you do for the rest of the year? Are you a full-time bugler?

A: I am. I play for every live race here, every live race at Keeneland, and then when we’re not racing, there’s a horse show that I do in Lexington in July, and then the World Championship Horse Show that’s here in August. I also do different events at the Derby Museum or at Churchill Downs. Also I do events with the Louisville Convention and Visitors bureau. I’ve started NCAA events by doing the National Anthem and the Call to the Post, wedding receptions to call people from cocktails to dinner, or to announce the bride and groom. I stay fairly busy.

Q: Have you ever messed up to the point of embarrassment or having to start over?

A: Yes I have! It was on a Sunday afternoon. We were celebrating my wife’s 40th birthday up in the Starting Line Suites and I’d just come back from visiting, and I went to play the Call to the Post, and I don’t know what came out! It was unbelievable! I could actually hear the fans gasp after I played. You could hear this collective (gasp). And I just kind of put my hands up, like, I didn’t know what happened. I don’t know if something was stuck on it, or if I had put my lips the wrong way — obviously something was wrong. So then I did it over several times correctly. That’s the worst. That Sunday afternoon, that one time.

Q: What is your favorite music, outside of the Call to the Post?

A: I like classical trumpet music. I’m into ’50s rock and roll right now. I love musical theater, getting to play in the pit, and even getting to be onstage in a few different performances, I just love. And I love classical music. Brass quintet music is really fun and challenging. Brass band is awesome. And classic rock.

Q: What was your favorite Derby and why?

A: Well there was a Derby where I watched the race with Wynton Marsalis up on the roof, which was pretty cool. He had come to do a master class at U of L, and he came to the Derby to play with the U of L band, to play “My Old Kentucky Home” with them. And after he played, I went out and introduced myself and asked him if he’d want to come up and watch the race from up on the roof with the governor and the CEO and all that. And he did. It was great. Everyone knew who he was, and was excited to have him up there. As a trumpet player, it doesn’t get much better than that.

Q: Are there any misconceptions about you that you want to clear up?

A: When I first started, they told new reporters that I lived under the pagoda with my family, which I thought was hilarious. Like we’re a bunch of mole people or something that lived underneath the pagoda! That’s one of my favorite stories. And John Asher (vice president of Racing Communications at Churchill Downs) tells people that I sleep in this uniform, but I don’t, really.

The questions for this special Derby edition of Curious Louisville came from Tracy Schwab, Amy Inlow Wells, Leah Pye, Jeff Ketterman, Bayle Pulliam, Brennan Cox, Chris Meier, Kimberly Fonzo, Aly Embry, Woody Chancy, Ryan Lash, Pecos Edwards, John Austin Clark, Daniel Hill, Lisa Hatfield, Katie McWhorter,  Michelle Jones, Leah Roberts, and many pseudonymous folks on Twitter.

Click here to see the other Derby questions we’ve answered this year. Have a question about Louisville or the people who call it home? Ask it in the form below or at curiouslouisville.org!

Laura produces Recut, Curious Louisville, Strange Fruit, and other audio news stories for WFPL.