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The man behind the horn: Meet the Kentucky Derby bugler

Steve Buttleman has been the official bugler for Churchill Downs for 27 years. (David Blair/AP)

LOUISVILLE — The bugler at Churchill Downs knows you might have a question, a question he fields more than any other question, a question surely posed to many a bugler through time, an American question, a nosy question, a polite question: So what’s your full-time job?

Well, the bugler doesn’t just turn up on the Kentucky Derby infield and NBC telecast once a year to play the 34 notes of “Call to the Post,” the iconic strand of music technically named “First Call.” No, the bugler plays that and the national anthem through all the races at all the meets across all the year at Churchill Downs, which is not to mention that Steve Buttleman also plays at the Keeneland track in Lexington and at wedding receptions, Derby Museum functions, sporting events, corporate events and military funerals. “Every vet deserves to have a live bugler,” he said Friday morning. “It’s the least I can do for them.”

And then, to note the gamut: “One of the trade shows I did the last few weeks was for electrical contractors, and I played up in one of the bucket trucks,” those people holders often seen up poles or up near wires. “I did ‘My Old Kentucky Home’ and the ‘Call to the Post’ from up in one of the bucket trucks. . . . I had all the safety gear and everything, got hooked in. It was really fun.”

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Bugler, if you must know, is a full-time job.

It’s one of the rarer full-time jobs you can have, and in Buttleman’s case, for the past 27 years, it has been one with one rare office view. It’s out inside the two tracks (dirt and turf), in a white pagoda with windows that allow for gazing onto the Twin Spires. It’s a job in which you meet a slew of people and play in front of slews more. It’s a job famed enough that one time years ago, when a kindergarten teacher had the pupils state their parents’ professions, Buttleman’s son told excitedly about how his father was the bugler at Churchill Downs, just after telling in a humdrum tone about his mother’s job.

That would be pediatrician.

“And I’m like, ‘Someday you’ll have some perspective on that,’ ” Buttleman said post-laugh.

It’s a job of waiting and playing, waiting and playing, sometimes waiting on horse pundits on TV to finish their yakking and then playing. He waits at a desk in the fine little structure, his Derby outfit hanging on a wall in a garment bag of the local shop British Custom Tailors, amid photos of Kentucky kids who revel in his work, of Buttleman pretending to blow his horn into Bill Murray’s ear (Murray’s photo concept), of Brett Favre in pajamas with Buttleman while filming a commercial in which Buttleman was supposed to awaken Favre.

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Then this husband of one, father of two and grandfather of three (and soon four) dons his boots and hat and jacket and steps out the door onto the veranda to play, mindful of the succinct instructions he has printed for himself on the wall:

FOCUS.

Keep it close.

Keep it forward.

Be present.

“Keep it close” pertains to the notes of “Call to the Post,” which can seem intimidatingly strewn around: “When you’re playing G and then C and then E and then G,” he said, “in your brain it can kind of seem like it’s far apart, just when you’re thinking about the [music] staff. So I try to focus on, you know: ‘Keep it close. Keep things forward in the mouth.’ And that way, the air and the tongue work better.”

Buttleman plays for hundreds of people or a hundred thousand, depending on the track day, and to listeners it’s as much a part of the process as the bourbon. They roar three or four notes in at Derby post time. It’s a role he never imagined when he took up trumpet in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in fifth grade, when he got a trumpet for Christmas in eighth grade, when he matriculated to the University of Louisville to study music, when he gave up music for a spell and worked in hospitals, when he met his wife at that work in 1989 and went to dinner and married that same year (they were sure), and when he learned Churchill Downs sought a bugler in 1995, auditioned among eight, auditioned among two, got the job and felt floored.

Now Buttleman has played the 34 notes (and so many others), remaining hard on himself the entire time. “Most musicians are,” he said. “You could play a thousand notes right, and the one you’d remember is the one [you missed] . . . I’d say there are things, like little, teeny sounds that I pick up that most people don’t, that I don’t feel like it’s as clean as I want it. But most people don’t hear it.” He hears it, and every so often he upbraids himself: “ ‘Really, after 27 years, you can’t play this right?’ You know, there are times when I’m practicing or warming up and I’m like, ‘Really?’ But I guess we all have days like that.”

He added: “I did find out one thing that I thought was interesting that, when we had the Derby raced in September [2020, because of the pandemic], and we didn’t have a crowd, I was actually more nervous without the fans than with 100,000 people here. And I think what it is, when I play the first three notes of the ‘Call to the Post’ before the Oaks and Derby, the place erupts, and so I’m thinking, ‘Okay, that’s good because if I happen to make a mistake, they’ll cover it up.’ But then I also feed off their energy, the excitement and — I don’t want to get too dramatic — the mojo that they give off really feeds me. I think I play better when I know I’m playing for people. I want to play well all the time, but maybe there’s a little bit extra when you know you’re doing it for the fans, too.”

That, as with many other bugler revelations, sounds curiously like an athlete, as does Buttleman’s Derby ritual an hour before post time. Then and there, he’ll take a little walk on the grass up the inside rail, gather his head, feel grateful, marvel that he’s the guy who gets to do this and maybe even run across still more fans. “Oh, I’ve had people, drunk people, think I’m a jockey,” he said. “ ‘Oh, my God, that’s a big jockey.’ How many mint juleps have you had?”

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