Music News & Reviews

Uncommonwealth: Bugler 'Bucky' Sallee 'as timeless as Keeneland'

George "Bucky" Sallee, the bugler at Keeneland for 50 years, relaxed on the back porch of his home in Georgetown on Sept. 24.
George "Bucky" Sallee, the bugler at Keeneland for 50 years, relaxed on the back porch of his home in Georgetown on Sept. 24. Lexington Herald-Leader

GEORGETOWN — George "Bucky" Sallee is passing an afternoon playing the Skip Bo card game at his kitchen table while eating an ice cream bar.

He is finally retired all the way.

Sallee, 84, Keeneland Racetrack's bugler for more than 50 years, is being replaced this fall by Steve Buttleman, 49, of Louisville. Sallee had earlier retired from his job at the state Public Service Commission.

Now he has time to play cards a little bit and have a snack. Sitting at his kitchen table in his suspenders, he looks far less regal than he does at the track in his top hat and green dress coat.

He jokes about starting college as a music major at the University of Kentucky, but "I got smarter than the professors, and I quit.

"Music has always been a good hobby for me," he said. "I played for some of the best bands in the country. I toured with Jerry Lee Lewis when he was big."

But, he said, he was away from home a lot.

He was playing a gig on the tenor saxophone when he picked up a trumpet and drew the attention of a Lexington golf pro who knew that Keeneland needed a bugler. A few days later, Sallee started the longest musical gig of his life at Lexington's legendary race track.

Despite being around so many horse races, Sallee said that he rarely bet on them.

He recalls asking one trainer how things were going on a particular day. When the man was noncommittal, Sallee said, he would not bet. When the trainer said, "Mama needs a new dress," Sallee knew the odds of winning must be pretty good.

"Bam! I'm going to the window," he said.

When it comes to music, Sallee likes the old standards such as Stardust.

He says he awoke the day his Keeneland retirement was announced with a song playing through his head and he begins to pick out a few notes: "There's a tree that I see ... . It says, 'I'll love you 'til I die.'"

He gives up quickly.

"Singing is something you've got to do all the time. You can't keep your voice in shape unless you do sing." (Best guess on the song, via Google: Billy Reid's A Tree in the Meadow, popularized when sung by Conway Twitty.)

Sallee, a Lexington native, has outlived two of his three sons and his first wife. He and his current wife, Barbara, have visited everywhere they care to go, he said. Now they prefer to stay close to home.

Asked how long they have been married, Bucky Sallee said 34 years.

That would be 35, countered Barbara Sallee.

"Seems like 40," Bucky Sallee retorted.

They're kidding.

"He is retiring from a job he has lived for," said Barbara Sallee. "He lives and breathes for Keeneland. He liked the people. Even the little kids loved him."

Sallee pointed proudly to a plaque on a wall of his living room. It's an elaborately framed gold record with pictures of Sallee in his bugler's garb back in the black-and-white photography era and in 2012.

"You are as timeless as Keeneland," it reads.

Sallee took his horn pieces out of their pouch, precisely layering them together on the kitchen table. After it's assembled, he plays, and the notes of Boots and Saddles echo through his tidy living room.

Bucky Sallee — the nickname "Bucky," he said, was given to him by his father on the day he was born — is still calling them to the races.

Keeneland honors 'Bucky' Sallee

The public is invited to join Keeneland in honoring Bucky on opening day of the fall race meeting, Friday. Gates open at 11 a.m.; post time for the first race is 1:05 p.m. Special commemorations are planned prior to the first race, and Bucky will sign autographs during the afternoon. Fans will be able to share their memories of Bucky online, or drop a letter in the "Bucky Mailbox," which will be located adjacent to the paddock on opening day.

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