Churchill Downs’ Bugler Loves His Job

Originally published on Saturday, May 6, 2006

Churchill Downs bugler Steve Buttleman at work on the first day of racing  at Churchill Downs on Saturday April 29, 2006, in Louisville. Photo by Mark  Cornelison | Staff

Churchill Downs bugler Steve Buttleman at work on the first day of racing at Churchill Downs on Saturday April 29, 2006, in Louisville. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff

By Rich Copley

LOUISVILLE — Steve Buttleman’s son, Tyler, was telling his kindergarten class what his daddy did for a living. “My dad is the bugler at Churchill Downs,” the boy said with excitement.

And what does your mom do, was the next question.

“Oh, she’s just a doctor,” said Tyler, who is now 12, sans enthusiasm.

That was pretty much all the confirmation Buttleman needed that he has a pretty cool job.

Buttleman has been Churchill Downs’ official bugler for 11 years.

His annual 33 notes of fame are the Call to the Post, which he plays as the horses take to the track for the Kentucky Derby while more than 100,000 fans in Churchill Downs and millions of race fans across the country watch.

It’s been a good gig.

Steve Buttleman, Churchill Downs' official bugler for the past 11 years, has the job of playing the Call to the Post, as the horses take to the track for the Kentucky Derby. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff

Steve Buttleman, Churchill Downs' official bugler for the past 11 years, has the job of playing the Call to the Post, as the horses take to the track for the Kentucky Derby. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff

Buttleman is frequently seen in ads for the Downs, Derby and related events, and he is even featured on a pin for the Kentucky Derby Festival this year. He’s also in demand to play at events such as Spalding University’s annual Run for the Rodents, a literal rat race, and Harbor House’s Ken-Ducky Derby, a rubber duck race to raise funds for the home for disabled adults.

“I do a lot of charity stuff,” Buttleman says. “Because of the position I’m in, I like to give back to the community.”

Buttleman grew up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where he actually had a brush with the Derby in high school, playing for a Derby party. “I had no idea what I was doing, what the Derby was all about,” Buttleman recalls.

He started playing cornet in fifth grade and went to the University of Louisville because his high school teacher was a U of L graduate.

Buttleman, 41, actually left music for a little while, working in health care, where he met his wife, Rhonda, now a pediatrician. But when his daughter, Megan (now 14), was born, “I kind of re-examined my life and started playing trumpet again.”

He returned to the Louisville music school and became first-chair trumpet in the band.

Bugler at Churchill Downs was typically a gig for a U of L grad student. At auditions, the students tried out under the glare of cameras and lights.

“They wanted to see what we looked like when we did it, our presentation,” Buttleman says. “I was very surprised I got it. I almost didn’t come to the audition because I was having my wife’s car worked on.

“A lot of things went into me getting this job — being in the right place in the right time and having people that helped me get in the right position to take advantage of the opportunity.”

Buttleman says the position of bugler wasn’t taken quite as seriously before, but now he is part of the Churchill Downs marketing department.

Official bugler is a seasonal job — full-time during the racing season and at other Churchill-related events. Buttleman fills the rest of his time with charity and free-lance bugling and trumpeting work.

For a guy who once had no idea what the Derby and horse racing were about, Buttleman is now very tuned in to the whole Churchill calendar and the Derby.

Reflecting on the bustling buildup to Derby, he talks about watching the horses work out on the backside in the morning and anticipates the return of NBC crews and equipment preparing for the national broadcast.

“It’s all timed very precisely,” Buttleman says of the broadcast. Usually, a stage manager is crouching near Buttleman, and he signals the bugler when it’s time to play the Call to the Post.

Buttleman admits he gets nervous on Derby Day. “It’s 33 notes, and people know what they’re supposed to sound like.”

His preferred horn is a Bach Stradivarius herald trumpet he started playing last year — “a great, great horn.”

There’s more to Buttleman than 33 notes, though. He has developed different calls to the post for various stakes races at Churchill Downs and has enjoyed adding special music to race days, such as military anthems on Veterans Day and “goodbye” songs for the last day of the meet.

But the Derby “is traditional for me,” Buttleman says. “For us, the tradition is pretty straightforward.”

Buttleman plays at events outside Churchill Downs, relishing work in pit orchestras for musicals at venues such as the Derby Dinner Playhouse across the Ohio River in Clarksville, Ind. Some of his favorite shows include Secret Garden and Wicked. He was even onstage once, playing Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls.

Between races, Buttleman worked on a Derby float for a parade at his son's school. "Being a dad's the best thing I get to do," he said. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff

Between races, Buttleman worked on a Derby float for a parade at his son's school. 'Being a dad's the best thing I get to do,' he said. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff

But his fondest talk is for shows his children have been in at Louisville’s Trinity High School and other venues.

And last year, Buttleman’s family, Tyler, Megan and wife Rhonda, got to come to the race.

“I love everything I get to do,” Buttleman says, “but being a dad’s the best thing I get to do.”

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