After a career of more than 45 years at Churchill Downs Racetrack, the historic home of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (Grade I), Track Superintendent Raymond “Butch” Lehr will retire from that post when the track concludes its 2012 Spring Meet on Sunday, July 1.
Lehr, 63, started his lifetime career at Churchill Downs when he was hired as a member of the backside maintenance crew in 1967. He was appointed in 1976 to serve as assistant track superintendent under the revered veteran Thurman Pangburn, succeeded Pangburn as track superintendent in 1982.
Highlights of Lehr’s more than 30 years at Churchill Downs include oversight of the design and construction of Churchill Downs’ Matt Winn Turf Course, which opened in 1986 and allowed the track to become the most popular host of the Breeders’ Cup World Championships; the conversion of the former Louisville Downs harness track into Trackside Training Center, which includes a six-furlong training surface that mirrors Churchill Downs’ one-mile sandy loam racing 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.
Lehr’s efforts in leading his track maintenance team have led to praise for the Churchill Downs racing surfaces for being among the safest and fairest courses in North American and the world. His expertise on track maintenance and construction has been sought by tracks throughout North America and around the globe. Those efforts include work in the early 1990s as a consultant on the maintenance of the dirt course at Dubai’s Nad Al Sheba Racecourse, which opened in 1986 and hosted the Dubai World Cup, UAE Derby and other world class racing events through 2009.
“I came to work here because I needed a job and ended up working my whole life here, and it’s been a good life,” Lehr said. “I’ve had some other opportunities and offers through the years, but any move away from Churchill is downhill, in my opinion. I was born and raised here. I have pictures of my dad on a horse here, my uncle (Charlie Voneye) was assistant track superintendent at Churchill and I’ve had a great opportunity to work with my brother, David, through the years on track projects here. It’s been special to see some of the great horses that have come through here and what they’ve accomplished, and it’s a good feeling to know you had something to do with it.”
“The work and leadership of Butch Lehr and his outstanding track crews during his three decades as track superintendent has been vitally important to Churchill Downs, the Kentucky Derby and Oaks, and all of Thoroughbred racing,” said Kevin Flanery, president of Churchill Downs Racetrack. “Of course, his work is not quite done – he still has the 138th Kentucky Derby and Oaks and an important Spring Meet on the horizon. But we hope people throughout Thoroughbred racing will join us in thanking Butch for his work and dedication, and wish him the best as he leads his team through his final Churchill Downs meet.”
Flanery said the search for Lehr’s successor has begun. He said the search would be “comprehensive,” but gave no timetable for when the track hoped to complete its rare task of naming a new track superintendent. Pangburn served in that post from 1962-1981, and his predecessor, Tom Young, who was hired by legendary Churchill Downs General Manager (and later President) Matt Winn in 1911, held the job for 50 years.