Steve Buttleman at the Kentucky Derby
For fifteen seconds a year, Steve Buttleman is the most famous man in America. On the first Saturday of every May, sporting his famous red jacket and tiny black hat, he marches from the white pagoda behind the Churchill Downs Winner's Circle, lifts a polished brass horn to his caramel-colored mustache, and plays "Call to Post." Buttleman's rendition—a brief ditty that signals jockeys to lead their horses into the starting gate—grabs the attention of movie stars in Millionaire's Row, infield drunks, and countless television viewers. It's also the sign for Kentucky Derby fans to clutch their betting slips and start praying.
As the Official Bugler of Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby, Buttleman ushers in one of the most intense moments in sports. But being the center of attention isn't as glamorous as one might expect. In fact, his job seems downright lonely.
"Normally, I'm in the pagoda by myself," he said as we ate sandwiches during the lunchtime rush at a Louisville Arby's. Steve Buttleman is soft spoken. He's a Cub Scout leader and an artist in his spare time—not the kind of guy who wastes much energy worrying about the spotlight. I secretly hoped he'd arrive to the restaurant in uniform, but the unassuming bugler showed up for our conversation dressed in jeans and a football shirt from the University of Kentucky, where his son is a team manager. "I really don't have a whole lot of interaction with people during the year."
Buttleman's year entails much more than just the Derby. In addition to that famous race, Churchill Downs holds two annual sessions: the Spring Meet from April to June and the Fall Meet from September to November. Races are held five days a week, and Buttleman has been known to play "Call to Post" up to eleven times a day.
There are thirty-minute stretches between races, and the bulk of Buttleman's downtime couldn't be further from the on-track action. "I've had my sewing machine in there. I've done different projects. Just recently I've started making earrings. It started with holiday earrings and branched out to other stuff. They're simple, fun earrings."
When discussing this artistic streak as we finish our meal, Buttleman's bashfulness was replaced by a controlled enthusiasm. "And I've come up with some notecards that I'm trying to sell. One for a boy and one for a girl. The card says, Congratulations, it's a colt, or, Congratulations, it's a filly."
I got the sense that Buttleman loves bugling, but I suspect it's the job's free time he cherishes the most. "I am happiest when I am being creative," he said. "When my son was younger, I would try out craft ideas for Cub Scouts between races and prepare for our den meeting. I made barrettes and earrings for my wife and daughter. I would see something that would trigger an idea, and then I'd create it. I just decided to try to make my ideas a reality and see what would come of it."
After eighteen years of bugling for Churchill Downs, Buttleman has streamlined the job down to his practice routine. "Depending on how well my lips are working, it takes thirty to forty-five minutes to do my little warm-up routine every day. And then later on I'll try and come back and do another twenty, thirty minutes of flexibility stuff."
Buttleman's Derby routine is just as organized. "I usually arrive around seven in the morning and stick around long after the last race. My Cub Scout troop cleans up the infield, so I hang out with them."
But it wasn't always so smooth for America's most famous bugler. "The first year, they hadn't really thought about where I was going to park or how I was going to get to the track. So, I paid to park in somebody's yard just like everybody else. My daughter was little then, and I had a baby stroller in the back of the car," he said, wiping his lips with a napkin. He leaned in closer. "So, I put my bugle and my uniform in the stroller and pushed it to the track. And I didn't have any credentials, so I tried to get into the back gate off of Third Street. They thought I was just some kook."