Sounds of the Derby

Discover the World-Famous Sounds That Make the Kentucky Derby a Cherished and Timeless Tradition

Written by Laura Ross Photography by Churchill Downs Racetrack and Courtesy of Kevin Kerstein, University of Louisville Archives and University of Louisville Memorial Music Library

Science tells us that the brain forms memories in many ways, utilizing all our senses. Research has shown that while images form the “story” in our memories, the sounds that accompany those images set off a complex web of neural connections that enhances the memory. Those auditory cues, if heard again in other circumstances, produce vivid flashbacks to what one hopes are pleasant memories. We took a look at some of the most iconic sounds of Derby and how they blend into a chorus of celebration like no other. 


Churchill Downs Chief Bugler, Steve Buttleman

When the bugle sounds, ears perk, and the cheers rise. The “Call to the Post” is one of the most iconic sounds of the Kentucky Derby that heralds the arrival of the horses onto the track shortly before a race. Churchill Downs Racetrack bugler Steve Buttleman has played the call thousands of times in his career and for him, every note is special. 

“A reporter who didn’t understand what I do asked me once, and I answered, I’m kind of the person at the Indy 500 who says, ‘Gentlemen, start your engines!’ Twenty-nine years ago, I was a music student at the University of Louisville studying trumpet. Eight of us decided to audition for the position of Chief Bugler at Churchill Downs. I almost didn’t go. I was having my wife’s car worked on that morning, so I warmed up outside Midas Muffler. I arrived late and everyone was in a coat and tie, and I was in cutoffs, tennis shoes and a windbreaker. I made it to the final two and was lucky enough to be the guy they picked. 

It’s been a full-time job for these last twenty-nine years and I love what I do. Interacting with the fans is wonderful. I want to play perfectly every time and give the fans the best experience that they can have.  

I want to be considered a musician, not just a bugler, but a trumpet player as well. Most of the time what I play on is a herald trumpet because it has valves – a bugle doesn’t have valves – so that gives me more flexibility to do the “Call to the Post,” “The Star-Spangled Banner,” “My Old Kentucky Home” and other patriotic or special holiday songs. 

Something very exciting that’s going to happen this year is that a company in Lexington called Pickett-Blackburn is making me a custom bugle and herald trumpet in honor of the 150th Kentucky Derby. The sound is so important because there’s so much going on. All your senses are filled, especially on Derby Day.  

I have a couple of minutes to add my sound. I want it to be pleasing to the ear and I want people to be able to hear it and celebrate the “Call to the Post.” 

My office is in the pagoda in the Winner’s Circle, and when I look out my front doors and can see the Twin Spires, it’s one of the greatest office views in the world of sports. An hour before Derby is when things really start to ramp up and my little house gets crowded, so I always take a walk up the turf track. When I get to the top of the stretch, I turn around and I see the Twin Spires, and hopefully, it’s a sunny day and everyone’s having a great time. 

I listen to the sounds of the crowd. I just think, what did I do to deserve to be this guy? Then, I just say, thank you God and please help me not screw up. Then that kind of gets the nerves out and I’m able to just focus on what I need to do after that. 

I love Churchill Downs and the people behind the scenes who I feel like I represent. I want to represent everybody who puts in all the hard work that you don’t get to see. The Derby has a thousand moving parts and those people don’t wear a red coat and black boots and get to be on national TV like I do. Their contributions and their interactions with our fans are of the utmost importance and I hope I represent all of them well. I feel blessed to do my job.” 


Churchill Downs Announcer, Travis Stone 

Travis Stone’s impassioned voice takes Kentucky Derby fans around every inch of the track during the Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports. As he announces the Run for the Roses at Churchill Downs, his excitement, passion and pin-point accuracy whips the crowd into a frenzy of winning euphoria or crushing defeat. Travis Stone is, quite simply, the voice of Churchill Downs.   

“This will be my tenth Derby, and obviously, it is the pinnacle of what I do. It’s the greatest race in the world and as a perfectionist when it comes to race calling, it’s a never-ending challenge. The pressure and the magnitude never goes away. 

I have a binder every year and I have pages of notes on every single horse. It covers everything a month out or more leading up to the race. I start doing vocal warmups, breathing exercises and I get to know and understand the horses. I keep a to-do list of things every day for Derby prep in terms of my calls, my sound, my delivery, the words I’m using, all of that. You want to know those horses in the Derby like the back of your hand so that nothing is left to chance. 

I grew up in upstate New York and we went to Saratoga racetrack all the time. I’d come home and pretend to be a race caller and by the time I was twelve, I decided that’s what I wanted to be. I just called a lot of races as a kid growing up, whether it was off the TV, off the computer games in my head, or when I was at the actual racetrack. The only professional training I had was going to auctioneer school in college. Most of it is just self-taught and lifelong learning. 

The sound you hear from me is that I’m a very clear speaker on the microphone. You can understand what I say. One of the things I’ve been working on is better breathing. I found some breathing exercises that a lot of vocal performers do and I’m exercising with that daily. I just want to stay as calm as possible to keep all those nerves down in the days leading up, but it’s ok to be excited, because it is the Derby. I need to portray that to the audience in a manner that is energized, but calm, because your adrenaline goes into overdrive easily when you’re calling a race. 

Like an actor, I want to give my listener an experience and put a creative spin on a horse race that people enjoy. I want to take a horse race and weave it into a compelling narrative, with the horses being characters in that story and create a true arc to the event without being over the top. I want the drama to build naturally to create interest.  

When I’m done calling races someday, I hope that they call me a storyteller who told great Derby stories. I would consider that a milestone achieved. I mean, you just become a part of someone’s memory, which is extraordinary.”


University of Louisville Cardinal Singers

As the Derby horses parade onto the track, the beloved state song of Kentucky, “My Old Kentucky Home,” is sung by the University of Louisville Cardinal Singers. As music fills the air, thousands of racegoers chime in to all “….sing one song for my old Kentucky home., my old Kentucky home, far away.”

“The University of Louisville Cardinal Singers are an internationally renowned choir that competes in high level international choral competitions and performs as a feature choir at various symposiums. We rehearse during the academic school year, and normally we do some kind of international trip in the summer. They spend time rehearsing complex musical pieces through the year, learning new languages and perfecting their choral performances. In the past, we’ve traveled to sing with choirs in South Africa, Germany, and throughout Europe. However, we always try to keep the First Saturday in May open for the Kentucky Derby.

We’ve performed “My Old Kentucky Home” with the University of Louisville Cardinal Marching Band for about fifteen years. Our choir looks forward to the Derby every year. It is a great honor to sing our state song at such an extraordinary event. We spend the day rehearsing with the Cardinal Marching Band and enjoying the Derby.  

We were founded as a service organization in 1970 so when we are asked to perform for an event like the Derby, it’s a privilege to be a part of it. It’s part of our heritage as both a service organization and a high-level performing ensemble.  

Our sound is respectful and an important part of the essence of the Derby. We wait for that one moment. It’s truly a moment – shorter than the race itself – but it is one that represents the best our state of Kentucky has to offer.  

If you want one memory, that’s the moment the band and our Cardinal Singers break into song. It is always unforgettable and this year will be no different celebrating the 150th Kentucky Derby. As the song grows, just the reverberation of “My Old Kentucky Home” around Churchill Downs is spectacular. You can hear everyone joining in to sing along and that’s thrilling.”

  • Dr. Kent Hatteberg Director of Choral Activities, University of Louisville


University of Louisville Cardinal Marching Band

The University of Louisville Cardinal Marching Band has been the official band of the Kentucky Derby since 1936. They not only play right before Derby, but throughout the day during other races. Representing both the University of Louisville and the Commonwealth of Kentucky is a responsibility they take very seriously.  

“Most college marching bands perform for football games in the fall and then don’t do anything in the spring, but we do football, basketball, the Pegasus Parade and the Kentucky Derby. We get the entire band together again in the spring to get our musical aspects back on par for a nationally televised audience. That takes some time to prepare and knock the rust off so we are ready for the spotlight. 

It’s a long but fun day for us. We meet over at the School of Music at 7:00 a.m. for rehearsal and load up the bus we take to Churchill Downs. We enter the racetrack around 9:00 a.m. and after playing our school’s alma mater before one of the morning races, we do a sound check for NBC, and then the kids get to relax a bit. They change from their uniforms to Derby attire and enjoy the infield for a few hours before we play again for the afternoon races and of course, the Derby. 

The effort that goes into the day is enormous. It’s like you see the tip of the iceberg, but not the giant base under the water that’s supporting what you can see. We have 180 student musicians in the band and about a dozen staff that are a part of this. We start rehearsing outside during April at the UofL track and field complex, which helps us prepare for being outside on camera. We must have everything perfect as far as horn visuals, our uniform put together the correct way, being staged in the right order, in the right lines, making sure that everyone can see the conductor and vice versa. Every minute detail that you see the band do, we’ve rehearsed that before. 

A college marching band’s sound is loud and boisterous support for football and basketball games, but the Derby requires a different sound. We strive for a more symphonic blended sound because we are staged in front of microphones transmitting our sound within the track and on television. We want a full band blended sound. There’s a lot of rich tradition in playing “My Old Kentucky Home” because our university band has performed that at the Derby for nearly a hundred years. That makes it so meaningful for everyone. 

It can be the most beautiful day of your life, or it can be a cold rainy day. No matter the weather, band kids rise up in the moment of adversity. We always do our best and outperform expectations in the moment of performance.  

They understand that somewhere around 15 to 20 million people are watching on TV around the world, and even more on streaming. The coolest part of it is being the center of the sports world for that minute and a half and then the two-minute race right after, knowing that nothing else is going on in the world of sports larger than what you’re doing right now as part of that performance. It’s very memorable every year. And for our seniors, that’s their last time in uniform playing. What a way to go out on top!”

  • Dr. Jason Cumberledge – Director of Athletic Bands, University of Louisville