(Note: This was originally published in September 2014.)
David Lehr, track superintendent at Churchill Downs, is a fixture at the home of the Kentucky Derby.
Standing on the dirt track near the inside racerail, David Lehr takes in the sweeping view of Churchill Downs, which is laid out in front of him like a panoramic photograph. In the distance are the stately twin spires that adorn the top of the grandstands, an architectural feature that Lehr never tires of looking at. Beyond the dirt track is the turf course, its lush grass waving slightly in the wind.
It’s a riveting sight, especially considering that Churchill Downs has hosted 140 Kentucky Derbies and eight Breeders’ Cups. It’s also a bit overwhelming, considering the responsibility of maintaining Churchill Downs’ mile-long dirt track and near mile-long turf course. That’s where Lehr, Churchill Downs’ track superintendent, comes in.
Talk about a “Run for the Roses,” Lehr is a fixture at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky.The 61-year-old is in his 43rd year as a full-time employee. He succeeded his older brother, Butch Lehr, as track superintendent in 2012, and is Churchill Down’s oldest and longest-tenured employee. “I’ve worked to learn everything I could about this dirt track and turf course,” Lehr says. That includes earning 25 cents a pound for removing rocks and stones from the dirt track as a young boy.
David and Butch worked at the track during the summers when they were kids, performing odd jobs under the watch of their Uncle Charlie Voneye, who was the assistant track superintendent in the late 1950s.
When David graduated from Louisville’s Du-Pont Manual High school in 1972, he took one day off before reporting to Churchill Downs to work full time on the maintenance crew. He was promoted in 1994, overseeing maintenance of the dirt track at Trackside, an off-site training center. Lehr returned to Churchill Downs in 2005 when he was named assistant track superintendent under Butch, who was track superintendent for 31 years.
Lehr never envisioned working at Churchill Downs for more than four decades and being appointed track superintendent.
“He earned his stripes,” Butch says. “It’s hard to find someone who’s that dedicated to his job.”
Carrying on a tradition
When Lehr was named track superintendent, he knew it was his responsibility to carry on a special tradition. He’s only the fourth individual to hold the track superintendent post in 103 years.
“We talked with a strong roster of outstanding candidates during a true national search, but it became clear to us that the person best equipped to succeed in this important job was already here in David Lehr,” says Kevin Flanery,
president of Churchill Downs.
Like a golf course superintendent at a high profile club, Lehr feels the pressure that comes with the job. Like superintendents must meet their clientele’s expectations for near-perfect conditions, Lehr and his 26-person crew must meet similar expectations from horsemen, trainers, jockeys and even the media.
“They want the tracks perfect, which they should,” Lehr says. “Most of them appreciate what we do and understand our challenges, but we have to earn their respect.” John Asher, vice president of racing communications at Churchill Downs and Lehr’s good friend, says Lehr is always under the microscope for his performance.
“He has an enormous task,” Asher adds, noting Lehr and his crew must keep the tracks in “safe, unbiased and pristine” condition 70 days a year. “There’s a lot of scrutiny on any given day.”
How does Lehr cope with the pressure? “I’ve always been a worrier,” he says. “But being nervous is a good thing, because it keeps you on your toes.”
A perfect track is a safe track, Lehr states, noting his responsibility to keep horses and jockeys from harm’s way. With the dirt track, which is used more for racing, safety starts with proper grading to make it consistent from turn to turn. Lehr drives the grader himself to maintain a safe surface, rather than assigning an employee to the task. He calls grading an art.
“You have to have an eye for it. You have to know exactly how the track will react,” he explains.
On a recent morning, a crew member drove a tractor around the dirt track, dragging a harrow to smooth and level the surface. A tractor pulling a roller followed, packing the dirt to make it consistent. These and other maintenance practices are performed daily, sometimes more than once, depending on the weather.
The “dirt” is comprised of 75 percent sand, 22 percent silt and 3 percent clay. This precise combination of materials helps the track drain well, Lehr explains.
The turf course, which is seven-eighths of a mile long, was built in 1985. It’s comprised of tall fescue, which holds up well to the battering of horse hooves. The turf is mowed at a 3-inch height with commercial-grade mowers in the off-season and at 4.5 inches when races are scheduled. Lehr oversees a five-person crew to maintain the turf course. The employees walk it daily, checking for weeds and disease, much like a superintendent’s crew would do on a golf course.
The turf course also features a SubAir aeration and moisture-removal system, which promotes healthier and stronger playing surfaces. Augusta National Golf Club and other high-end courses use the same system on putting greens.
Considering what’s running on it, the turf course can get severely compacted. In the early spring, Lehr contracts with a firm to punch holes in the turf with a Verti-Drain. Then the turf is seeded and fertilized.
After the spring meet, the turf is verticut and deep-core aerified, and then it’s overseeded to prepare for the fall meet.
Jockey Calvin Borel, a three-time Kentucky Derby winner, recently told Asher that he had never seen the turf course in better condition, which Asher attributes to Lehr and his staff.
As it is for golf course superintendents, Lehr’s biggest challenge in maintaining the tracks is the weather.
“I’ve seen everything from Mother Nature,” he states.
Track conditions can change quickly if there’s heavy rain. Wind, sun and humidity also impact conditions. Hence, Lehr and his staff are constantly monitoring the tracks to ensure they’re in the best condition possible.
Another thing he has in common with many superintendents is that Lehr’s maintenance crew has grown smaller, thanks to the economic downturn. Even though it’s the smallest crew ever at Churchill Downs, Lehr doesn’t complain about the lack of help.
“We try to get it done with what we have,” he says.
Lehr speaks highly of the crew, which is a combination of veterans and greenhorns.
“I can’t do anything without them,” he says. “No one person can do this job.”
Rolling with the changes
Lehr cranes his neck and scans the Churchill Downs compound, which has grown significantly over the years. He has witnessed much change, including the addition of corporate suites and lights for night
racing, not to mention the construction of the turf course. He points to the terrace section, one of the latest additions.
The racing schedule has grown substantially. Once upon a time at Churchill Downs, races were only scheduled for 19 days in the spring and 19 days in the fall. Now spring racing begins in April and runs through June. The track is closed until racing starts up again in September and continues through Thanksgiving. “Then we’re back the following March, and we start getting ready for the Kentucky Derby,” Lehr notes.
Lehr’s schedule varies, but he spends many waking hours at Churchill Downs.
“When we’re racing, we’re here early, and we’re the last ones to leave,” he says.
As much as he likes his job, Lehr says it’s vital to take an annual vacation to clear his mind and recharge.
The biggest day of the year is Kentucky Derby Day. No matter his role, Lehr has never tired of preparing for the Derby. In the days leading up to it, all of Louisville is talking about the race.
Lehr arrives at Churchill Downs on the morning of the race before sunrise and grades the track soon after. The question everyone asks him: “How do you think the track will be?”
Racing begins about 10:30 a.m. There are nine races before the main event and two after it. It’s a long and exhausting day, says Lehr, but it’s always memorable and thrilling, especially with 165,000 people
in the stands.Lehr remembers his first Kentucky Derby, won by Riva Ridge in 1972. The following year Secretariat won the race in record time and went on to win the Triple Crown. His record still stands.
“There are no more Secretariats out there,” Lehr says.
The summers he spent as a child at Churchill Downs hold many memories for Lehr. He recalls the “characters” from that time, from the jockeys to the trainers, and the stories they told. One of those trainers was the legendary Woody Stephens, an American thoroughbred Horse Racing Hall of Fame trainer, who trained the winners of two Kentucky Derbies and five consecutive Belmont Stakes.
“I learned from them,” Lehr says of the old-timers. “Now I enjoy teaching the younger guys the same things that the older guys taught me.”
Looking out from high atop the grandstand, Churchill Downs is a wondrous sight. When asked what it’s like to view the esteemed property he manages from such a lofty position, Lehr responds: “I’m very proud of what we have accomplished. It’s everybody working together to make it look like this.”
Lehr doesn’t stop to smell the roses for too long. He notices things on the property that need repair or updating.
“I’m always planning and thinking about what we can do differently,” he says.
He isn’t one to rest on his laurels, even after almost 43 years.
“When you think you know it all … that’s not a good thing,” he says.
Lehr isn’t counting the days until he turns 65 so he can retire and move to Tahiti. There are no plans for that.
“When you enjoy what you do, it keeps you young,” he says.