(Originally published in the May 12, 2012 issue of The
Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and
the bottom of the column.)
It’s a pretty good indication that a job is special when only three people have held it over the past 100 years. Raymond “Butch” Lehr, the third track superintendent in the history of Churchill Downs, will retire at the end of the current meeting July 1, taking 45 years of experience and memories with him.
“It’s been an honor,” said Lehr, standing outside in front of his office near Gate 5 of the famed Louisville racetrack. Lehr brought some pedigree with him, his uncle Charlie Voneye having lived in a house near Barn 3 while serving as assistant track super. Lehr began on the maintenance crew at Churchill right out of high school and returned after two years in the military to work on the track crew before being tapped to assist Thurman Pangburn, his predecessor. Lehr succeeded Pangburn in 1982 and has held the top job ever since, something in which he justifiably takes a lot of pride.
“There’s not a vice president here that can say they started out here at $57.83 a week like I did,” said the personable Lehr with a smile.
Lehr has bridged a time period that increasingly has seen technology and shared information play greater roles in racetrack maintenance and safety, and he has been a willing participant in gathering as much knowledge as possible.
“Since the beginning I’ve traveled to other racetracks to see what they do and have gone to seminars, and I’ve tried to bring in new things I’ve learned,” he stated. “There is still no book that you can open up and say, ‘This is the way a racetrack should be built.’ I’ve compiled as much information on injuries and patterns that develop; I’ve been a stickler on keeping that info. And then it finally happened here where we had the high-profile breakdown of Eight Belles. It’s a side of the business no one wants to see, but I’ve been working closely with the Safety and Integrity Alliance gathering scientific data. We’re all working toward a standard, but until we’re able to put a roof over these tracks, we’re not likely to see it because weather plays such a big part in maintaining the track and what we do. People don’t always understand that. Even all-weather tracks are all-weather only until it’s too hot or too cold.”
Working at Churchill Downs means you’re associated with the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) more than anything else, and Lehr, 63, is no exception. He noted his greatest Derby memory came when he was working on the maintenance crew in 1973 when Secretariat shattered the Derby record.
“He was a phenomenon,” Lehr stated. “That certainly was a memorable one. As a caretaker of the track, I’ve seen a lot of race records broken, but Secretariat’s is still standing here. Zenyatta running in the Breeders’ Cup was another great day; it kind of took the place of Personal Ensign beating Winning Colors in the Breeders’ Cup in 1988. I was pulling for the Derby winner and she just about got there, but hats off to Personal Ensign. That was before we had lights here, but we had night racing that day,” Lehr said, referring to the Classic (gr. I) being run in the throes of dusk.
For a pure test of his crew’s skills, though, Lehr points to Smarty Jones’ Kentucky Derby of 2004, when a monsoon hit on race day and four inches of rain fell.
“That was no doubt our biggest nightmare,” Lehr said. “The grandstand was under construction at the time, and they lost two truckloads of concrete, which is why water came flooding out of the grandstand like it was whitewater rafting coming across the track. It took out some of the surface and we had to go in manually and put it back. People thought we were going to have to cancel the Derby. That was one where you think about going to your car and heading off into the sunset, but we stuck with it.”
Nature’s storms are bad enough, but Lehr has also had to deal annually with human eruptions as well, particularly from trainers and owners who seek to blame the track for their horses’ less-than-optimal performances in the sport’s biggest race. It is an annual rite that complaints are heard that the racing surface is ‘souped up’ on Derby Day; harder; cuppier; different than the way it’s been for training sessions leading up to the big day. Lehr has heard it all.
“That’s why I’m on four different kinds of heart-pressure medication,” he said. “I’ve never rolled up a track and put another one down overnight. But I’ve been accused of everything. It’s just part of the job that you’re gonna be criticized. The best horses in the world are here that day; it’s all stakes races and they’re gonna run faster. Plus, the weather plays a big part. When it gets hot and humid, I’ve seen this track play a full second faster just because of the humidity.”
Lehr plans to make good winter use of a home he’s purchased in Florida and also spend more time with his three grandchildren while keeping his hand in as a consultant.
“Because of my schedule I wasn’t around so much with my kids, but I’ll be around to spoil the grandkids,” he said.