Lehr Busy On Final Day of 30-Year Career as Track Superintendant

Jul 01, 2012 Travers Manley and John Asher

LEHR IN FINAL WORKING DAY OF 45 YEARS AT CHURCHILL DOWNS – Sunday morning for Churchill Downs Track Superintendent Butch Lehr began like many others during his 45-year career beneath the venerable Twin Spires at the home of the Kentucky Derby.

Lehr arrived early, on very little sleep, following a Downs After Dark night racing session that ended just before midnight.  The late finish assured that the first moments of his final day of employment at Churchill Downs would be those just after midnight.

On his Sunday arrival prior to the 6 a.m. (all times EDT) opening of the track’s training hours, Lehr looked ahead to a day of searing, triple-digit temperatures and the challenge of keeping sufficient water on the Churchill Downs main track for a racing program on the closing day of the 38-day Spring Meet that would not begin until 6:30 p.m.  The Spring Meet finale would be held under the lights for the first time, the last of an unprecedented three consecutive programs of night racing, with Friday and Monday scheduled because of the ongoing wave or record heat.

His last day would be like many others since he took his challenging job, but it could not be called 'ordinary.'

“I don’t think it’ll really hit me until next week when it’s over,” Lehr said of the end of his long run at Churchill Downs.  “I’ve had a lot of people stopping by, and I’ve taken a lot of pictures with people this morning.  It’s been nice, but I’ve told them I’ve got one more day to play in my big sandbox.”

The career of Raymond “Butch” Lehr, who launched a lifetime of work at Churchill Downs as a member of the backside maintenance crew in 1967, will officially conclude at the end of the day when he retires from the post of track superintendant.  He has held that job since 1982 – a run of just over 30 years.

With the change of schedule due to the heat, the Louisville-born Lehr joked last week that Churchill Downs was “already making me work six hours of overtime.”  Given that the last race on Sunday has a scheduled post time of 11 p.m., it’s an odds-on wager that Lehr will not be heading out of the stable area exit gate by midnight.

But it should no surprise that the 63-year-old Lehr would hang around well beyond normal working hours at his job at one of most famous and closely-scrutinized racetracks in the world,

Lehr is, after all, only the third man in more than 100 years to hold the job as Track Superintendent at Churchill Downs.  Col. Matt Winn, the legendary impresario credited with lifting the Kentucky Derby and Churchill Downs to their status as sports icons, selected Tom Young for that job in 1911.  After 50 years, Young passed those duties on to Thurman Pangburn in 1962.  Lehr was appointed to the post by Churchill Downs President Lynn Stone in 1982 after Pangburn stepped down the previous fall.

“It’s special to be on the list with those two men, and I was around them both,” Lehr said.  “Of course I worked under Thurman, and I saw Mr. Young.  I was a kid when he held the job, but my uncle worked with him so I got to see him at work.  I’m very proud of what we’ve done here, and I’m very proud of my team and all the people I’ve worked with through my years here.”

During Lehr’s tenure as Track Superintendent, he was a key player in the design and construction of Churchill Downs’ first turf course in the mid-1980’s, a development that led to the historic track’s role as the most frequent host of the Breeders’ Cup World Championships.  The 2012 visit by the Breeders’ Cup was the record eighth stop by the year-end Championships since it was first held beneath the Twin Spires in 1988.    

“That’s exactly the same course today as it was when we ran our first race over it, and we’re proud of that,” Lehr said.  “Some tracks have gone through two or three turf courses in that time.”

Other notable accomplishments during Lehr’s tenure include the conversion of the former Louisville Downs harness track into Trackside Training Center, which includes a six-furlong training surface that mirrors Churchill Downs’ sandy loam oval; installation and updates of drainage systems for the track’s dirt and grass courses; and a leadership role in safety programs and initiatives at the track that in 2009 enabled Churchill Downs to become the first track to receive accreditation from the National Thoroughbred Racing Association’s (“NTRA”) Safety & Integrity Alliance.

The work of Lehr and his team has annually gone under the media and industry microscope during the renewals of the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks, and when the Breeders’ Cup and its international cast comes to town.

But when asked on his final day about his favorite memories of his more than 45 years at Churchill Downs, Lehr’s thoughts were not focused on his work on the race courses that have been widely praises as the safest and fairest in America.  The first words off his lips were the names of horses.

“I always think of Alysheba in the 1987 Derby and how he nearly fell in the stretch, but stayed up and kept on going.” Lehr said.  “Then there’s Secretariat, of course.  I wasn’t track superintendent then, of course, but I got to see him.  Then there’s Personal Ensign in the Breeders’ Cup (1988 Distaff, now Ladies’ Classic).  She was chasing Winning Colors, and of course I was pulling for the Derby winner, but Personal Ensign got her in the last jump. I’ve got to say my most recent favorite was Zenyatta (the runner-up to Blame in the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic).  To see her run was really special.”

After he walks out of his office for the final time, Lehr is looking forward to spending more time with his wife, Phyllis, and his children following a career during which he often had an around-the-clock schedule.  At the top of his post-Churchill “to-do” list is time with his grandchildren and long visits at his cabin on Kentucky’s Nolin Lake.

But, on Sunday morning, Lehr was not focused on his post-Churchill Downs life.  His top-of-mind concerns were the day’s racing program and his team’s efforts to ensure that the one-mile dirt main track and the seven-furlong Matt Winn Turf Course would be as safe and fair as possible, regardless of triple-digit challenges Mother Nature might toss their way.

'The safety of horses and riders has always been the top priority with us,” Lehr said.  “We’re proud of our work and think we’ve done some good things here over the years.  After the work we’ve done with the Safety & Integrity alliance, we hope a lot of people understand and appreciate what we’ve tried to do.”

BREEDERS’ CUP JUVENILE ULTIMATE YEAR-END GOAL FOR BASHFORD MANOR WINNER CIRCLE UNBROKEN – The victory by Travis Morgeson V LLC’s Circle Unbroken in Saturday night’s 111th running of the Bashford Manor (Grade III) had the connections of the dark bay or brown son of Broken Vow thinking about the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (GI) on Sunday morning.

'“We don’t have a plan for his next race, but obviously the year-end goal will be the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile,” trainer Garry Simms said. “He came out of the race really well and he’s just a class act.”

The Bashford Manor was run at six furlongs and the $2 million Grey Goose Breeders’ Cup Juvenile will be run at 1 1/16 miles at Santa Anita on Nov. 3.

“I think he’ll be able to stretch out,” Simms said. “He has finished his first two races very strong and gallops out really well.”

The Bashford Manor was the seventh win of the Spring Meet for Simms, who saddled only 10 starters during the meets 38-day run. Two of his other starters finished second. Simms also won the 112th running of the Debutante (GIII) for 2-year-old fillies with Blueeyesintherein on June 23 and is one of only five trainers to sweep the those graded stakes races for 2-year-olds at the Spring Meet.

“It’s been the best meet of my career, by far,” Simms said. “I have good horses and a good team; from my assistant trainer to the exercise riders to the hot walkers to the grooms. It’s a well-oiled machine.”

Circle Unbroken was named for the group of friends and family that have supported Simms during the last two years while he has battled multiple myeloma.

Chuck and Maribeth Sandford LLC’s Positively finished second behind Circle Unbroken in the Bashford Manor and exited the race with tenderness in his shins.

“He came out of the race with tenderness in his shins, so we’re going to back off him for a bit,” trainer Pat Byrne said. “I’ll keep him at the track, but we’re going to stop on him for about thirty days or so and then bring him back in the fall.”

Byrne also mentioned the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile as a possibility for Positively, who is a half-brother to one of America’s leading sires, Malibu Moon.

“I’ll look to run him back for the first time in the fall at Keeneland and then we’ll look at the Kentucky Jockey Club (GII at Churchill Downs),” Byrne said. “I won’t rule out the Breeders’ Cup, though. I think he’s that caliber of horse. Next year, we’d love to run him in the Kentucky Derby (GI). We had a lot of fun this year (with Take Charge Indy) and it’d be great to do it again next year with this colt.”

ROMANS, MIDWEST THOROUGHBREDS REFLECT ON SPRING MEET – Trainer Dale Romans and owners Richard and Karen Papiese’s Midwest Thoroughbreds Inc. both had a terrific Spring Meet at Churchill Downs and will be honored as the leaders in their respective categories on Sunday night. Romans takes home his ninth local training title and his first since the Spring Meet in 2006. It is the second owner’s title at Churchill Downs for Midwest Thoroughbreds, who also topped the standings last spring.

Entering Sunday night’s card, Midwest Thoroughbreds had 15 wins from 39 starts and Romans had 22 victories from 116 starts.

“They are very excited about winning another owner’s title,” said trainer Brad Cox, who trained 12 of the 15 winners for Midwest Thoroughbreds this spring. “It’s a big deal to win two in a row at a place like Churchill Downs. It’s all about placing the horses properly and having them ready when you lead them over to run.”

“It feels good to win it again,” Romans said. “This is my ninth one, but it had been a bit since the last one. Definitely the highlight of the meet was Derby weekend, when we won three graded stakes, had a second with Tapitsfly (in the Grade II Churchill Distaff Turf Mile) and Dullahan ran third in the Derby.”

Romans saddled Silver Max, Shackleford and Little Mike at Churchill Downs to win three graded stakes races during a two-day span for the first time in his career. Silver Max won the American Turf Presented by RAM (GII) on the Kentucky Oaks Day undercard, while Shackleford took the Churchill Downs Presented by Navistar (GII) and Little Mike won the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic (GI) on Kentucky Derby Day.

“It’s been the best meet of my career at Churchill Downs,” said Romans, who is the second all-time leading trainer beneath the Twin Spires and trails only Hall of Famer Bill Mott.

BARN TALK – Track announcer Mark Johnson will not hang around in the United States for very long after calling the final race of the meet on Sunday night at Churchill Downs. The 46-year-old native of England will fly back to his homeland Tuesday night, arrive Wednesday morning and is scheduled to call at Kempton Park on Wednesday night.

“I’ll call at Kempton Park on Wednesday, Epsom on Thursday and Sandown on Friday and Saturday,” Johnson said. “On Saturday at Sandown, I’ll be calling the Grade I Eclipse, which will be the final race for So You Think-NZ.

“After that I will spend my time rotating around different tracks all across England. I figured out last night that from the time I leave Churchill Downs to the time I come back in the fall, I will call at 30 different racetracks. You would never want to buy a used car from a British track announcer.”

Johnson, who is just the sixth track announcer in the history of Churchill Downs, said his highlight of the Spring Meet was calling Shackleford to win the Churchill Downs Presented by Navistar (GII) on the Kentucky Derby Day undercard. …

Twin Creeks Racing Stables LLC’s Brown Eyes Blue became the first North American winner for 2008 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum Brands (GI) winner Big Brown when she crossed the line first in Saturday night’s second race at Churchill Downs. Big Brown’s first winner came with Ruby Brown, who won on June 15 at Kazan in Russia. …

Craig Singer’s homebred Salty Strike, who recorded her third stakes victory beneath the Twin Spires with her win in Saturday night’s Roxelana, came out of the race in fine order, according to Ken McPeek’s assistant trainer Phil Bauer, who said there are no plans for her next start.

WORKTAB Silverton Hill LLC’s Havelock, winner of the Hanshin Cup (GIII) at Arlington Park in his most recent start, breezed four furlongs on the fast main track at Churchill Downs on Sunday morning in :49 for trainer Darrin Miller. The work was the eighth fastest of 33 at the distance. …

Vinery Stables’ homebred Regally Ready, winner of the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint (GII) at Churchill Downs last November, breezed four furlongs on the main track in :49.60 for trainer Steve Asmussen. It was the 15th fastest half-mile work of the day.

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