(Photos: Butch Lehr at Churchill Downs, where he worked for more than 46 years. Courtesy The (Louisville) Courier Journal)
FRANKLIN, Ky. (Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2019) — Raymond “Butch” Lehr is Kentucky Downs’ new track superintendent, enlisted to oversee the care of America’s most unique turf course following the retirement of Ron Moore.
Lehr became one of the industry’s most-respected and best-known track superintendents during his 30 years in that post at Churchill Downs, where he worked for 46 1/2 years overall before retiring after the 2012 spring meet. That fall, the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters honored Lehr with its Joe Palmer Award for meritorious service to racing, the only track superintendent so honored in the organization’s 60-year history.
Since then, the lifelong Louisvillian has kept his hand in his profession as a consultant. The post at Kentucky Downs, which runs exclusively on grass over its 1 5/16-mile, undulating course, proved a perfect fit for Lehr, combining involvement with a top-notch race meet while maintaining much of his freedom of retirement.
“I miss it to a certain extent,” Lehr said his work in horse racing. “I wanted to get involved a little bit. This is an opportunity to be around people I used to work with, without doing it seven days a week for much of the year. I also see it as a little bit of a challenge, to see if I can make a difference.
“Right now (after the Kentucky Downs’ meet) the turf is better than it was in years past. I can’t remember when it was, but they asked me to come up there. I mean, if they’d had a weed program when they first started, they wouldn’t have had a turf course. It’s come a long way. It’s one of the tracks I’ve always said I’d like to work at.”
Ted Nicholson, Kentucky Downs’ senior vice president and general manager, said he was thrilled that the track only had to go 130 miles up I-65 “to hire the best in the business.”
“We race only six days in 2020, which makes it all the more critical that our course is at its absolute best on those days,” Nicholson said. “With its unusual configuration and changes in elevations, our track provides unique challenges. Butch made a career out of tackling challenges head on. There’s no more pressure in the track-man profession than being the guy in charge when it comes to maintaining the racing surface for the Kentucky Derby.”
Just during his last meet at Churchill Downs, Lehr had to contend with a hail storm that delayed racing 45 minutes on opening night and a severe late-afternoon thunderstorm on Kentucky Oaks Day that forced another delay and temporary evacuation of the infield crowd. There also was the massive flooding from six inches of rain in one hour that forced the evacuation of horses in water-filled barns in 2009 and a tornado that hit the Churchill Downs backstretch in 2011.
What arguably was Lehr and his crew’s finest work went unbeknownst by much of the public literally right before the 2004 Kentucky Derby. Not only did a sudden deluge of rain create standing water on the racing surface, but Lehr’s team had about an hour to rebuild part of the track that had washed out when a drain connected to grandstand construction backed up water onto the track. With only a minor delay, the Derby won by Smarty Jones went off without a hitch.
“Weather plays a part in all of these tracks,” Lehr said. “There are a lot of things in the maintenance of a racetrack where you can avoid problems if you know what you’re doing, especially at Kentucky Downs with a short meet like that, if you get on it and work at it hard enough and come up with a plan. You don’t just take care of grass on race days. There’s a lot that goes into it throughout the year. I think I’ve already given them some ideas that will benefit the course.”
Said Nicholson: “Jockeys told us they thought our course was in its best condition ever during our 2019 meet. We plan to only improve on that while tapping into Butch’s expansive knowledge and literally hands-on experience. While Butch was a vice president at Churchill Downs for a number of years, he never relinquished his seat on the tractor.”
Lehr joined Churchill Downs backside maintenance crew out of high school in 1967. He was promoted to assistant track superintendent in 1976 under revered veteran Thurman Pangburn and became track superintendent six years later.
Lehr oversaw the design and construction of Churchill Downs’ turf course that opened in 1986, the conversion of the former Louisville Downs harness track into the Trackside Training Center with a six-furlong dirt track; installing and updating the drainage systems for the track’s dirt and grass courses, and played a leadership role in safety programs and initiatives that in 2009 saw Churchill Downs become the first track to receive accreditation from the National Thoroughbred Racing Association’s Safety & Integrity Alliance.