Kentucky Derby

John Clay: Caretaker of Churchill's track prepares for his last Derby

Longtime Churchill Downs track superintendent Butch Lehr took a call Thursday during a break in the morning workout.
Longtime Churchill Downs track superintendent Butch Lehr took a call Thursday during a break in the morning workout. Herald-Leader

LOUISVILLE — On the one hand, he is every trainer's scapegoat.

"That's why I'm on four different kinds of blood pressure medicines," said Butch Lehr.

On the other hand, he is the man to thank for a thankless job, the one responsible for making sure the dirt surface where dreams come to live and die is in the best possible condition, especially for the Kentucky Derby.

This Derby will be the last for Raymond "Butch" Lehr, however. On July 1, the track legend will retire after 45 years at Churchill Downs, including the past 31 as track superintendent.

"It's time," Lehr, 63, said this week in his office just above the track. "I want to be able to enjoy the good years I have left."

Lehr took a job on the maintenance crew in 1967 and, aside from two years in the Army, he has been here since. He became assistant track superintendent in 1976. Five years later, when legendary Churchill track superintendent Thurman Pangburn retired, Lehr ascended to Pangburn's job.

In fact, Lehr is just the third track superintendent in Churchill's 100-plus-year history. Before Pangburn, Tom Young held the job for 50 years until his death.

As superintendent, Lehr is in charge of the track and its facilities. He installed Churchill's first turf course in 1985. He directed the conversion of the harness track Louisville Downs to Trackside, Churchill's training track.

However, it is the main track that is the most scrutinized part of Lehr's job.

"There's still not a book that you can open up and say this is the way you should build a racetrack," he said. "But the real thing a horse wants to see is a consistent racetrack."

To that end, Lehr is a hands-on operator, from helping grade the track to sometimes walking the surface. The track must be repaired each day after training. The crew must deal with weather conditions, knowing when the track is to be watered or rolled or left to dry.

Even though Lehr arguably is the best in the business, there is no pleasing everyone.

"We have 20 horses in the race, but the one who wins we'll never turn around and say he won because of the track," said Lehr. "But the other 19 lost because of the track. That's what they say."

That goes with the territory, he said. He knows the trainers feel pressure from owners, and owners feel the pressure of their investment.

He also knows that when a trainer complains, sometimes "they're just wanting things their way."

It's easy to say you can't let that affect you as track superintendent but harder to do.

"A lot of my colleagues, those guys are on pacemakers," said Lehr. "Somebody needs to find out why that is."

For example, at last year's Breeders' Cup at Churchill Downs, it rained after what had been a dry summer, making for unusual conditions. That didn't stop trainer Bill Mott from saying he had never seen the track in worse shape. He called it "oatmeal."

The next morning, Lehr was on the turf course when Mott brought a horse up to train. After some small talk, Lehr said, "All right, let's go out on the turf and find out what the hell you can find wrong with this."

Mott quickly tried to explain his comment.

"I just told him, 'I've taken my blood-pressure medicine, I'm OK,'" said Lehr. "I think I have a good relationship with those guys. We listen. We try to do things right."

Then there's Derby Day, where the annual knock is that Churchill soups up the track in an attempt to produce faster times.

"There are two big reasons why on Derby Day our track is fast," said Lehr. "First of all, we're running the best horses from around the world. Not just in this country, but the world.

"The other thing is that Friday and Saturday are the only two days that we train from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m., and not very many horses go out there and tear up the track like they do every other day. Then you put the best Thoroughbreds in the world on there."

Churchill must be doing something right. It has been host to the Breeders' Cup a record eight times.

Lehr is proud of that. He's also proud of recent data that have shown Churchill to be a good, safe surface.

"We've always thought we did it the right way," he said, "but it's nice to be backed up on that."

Now he is ready to turn it over to someone else. Lehr said his doctor has been trying to get him to retire for the past couple of years. He has a place in Florida and three grandchildren he would like to see more often.

First, he has one more Derby Day track to supervise.

"My ultimate goal is that we have a 20-horse dead heat," he said. "That would prove that it must be the track.

"But, I know that's never going to happen."

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