After 30 Years, Derby's Dirt Guru Hits Finish Line | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio
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After 30 Years, Derby's Dirt Guru Hits Finish Line

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The surface on which Kentucky Derby horses will race Saturday is a special piece of real estate, built for high performance and safety. The track is generically described as dirt, but is actually a careful mixture of river sand, silt and clay.

For more than a century, Churchill Downs in Louisville has had a track superintendent. The current man in charge of keeping the track in top condition, Raymond "Butch" Lehr, leads a team of dozens who carefully tend the one-mile oval. Lehr is the third person to hold the job. The 63-year-old took over in 1982 and has built a national reputation for excellence, but Saturday's race will be his last.

"I think my body's wearing out, really," says Lehr as he surveys the track from his perch beneath Churchill Downs' iconic twin spires. "But you know, all the pressure and the hours that we work, I don't want them carrying me out of here in a basket."

Adjusting To The Weather

It's a warm, sunny spring day at Churchill Downs, and the track is rated as fast. Between races, Lehr's crew is raking, fluffing and spraying the dirt.

One of the crew's biggest pressures is reacting quickly to the fickle weather in Kentucky, like the hailstorm that pounded the track on the opening day of the spring meet.

It didn't cause any major problems, but it reminded Lehr of a nightmarish day at the track, where time is marked by the names of Derby winners.

"Probably the most challenging Derby we had was Smarty Jones, when we had construction going on and we had some issues, and some very bad weather came through," he says.

Torrential rains soaked Churchill Downs about an hour before the 2004 Derby, washing out a portion of the track. Lehr and his crew were able to rebuild it and get the rest of the oval dry enough for racing.

Derby-winning jockey Calvin Borel has been riding at Churchill Downs for more than 14 years. He calls Lehr one of the best in the business, especially when it comes to the safety of horses and riders. Borel says Lehr sought out jockeys' opinions after last week's hailstorm.

"He even made us go out on the track to see if it was safe," Borel says. "Not too many of them do that, you know. Most of them would say, 'Yeah, it's safe, go ahead and ride.' "

Like everyone, Lehr was shaken by the injury suffered by the filly Eight Belles just after the finish of the 2008 Kentucky Derby. She had to be euthanized on the track. The accident was not related to track conditions, but Lehr became a member of a national alliance that has been attempting to develop industrywide safety standards.

Some racecourses have installed Polytrack, the synthetic surface that advocates say can reduce catastrophic injuries, but Lehr is not sold on it.

"I think it still has problems, especially when they get into saying it's all-weather," he says. "So far what I've seen is that it's all-weather, as long as it's not too hot or not too cold."

The Finish Line

As he sits under the spires, Lehr says he hasn't given much thought to what it will feel like on his final Derby Day, especially at that emotional moment when the post parade makes its way to the starting gate, to the strains of "My Old Kentucky Home."

"We're certainly going to be our best if we can," he says. "And that's all the time. It wouldn't be just because of this year."

Still, Lehr admits it will be a special moment and a special day for him and his crew.

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