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Curious Derby: What's The Origin Of The Call To The Post?

Steve Buttleman bugle

It’s 34 notes in the key of C — no sharps, no flats. And it means the next race is about 10 minutes away. You know it as the Call to the Post. Listener Hannah Zimmerman wanted to know where it came from. 

The search for an answer started at the pagoda out at Churchill Downs, where Steve Buttleman hangs out between races. He's been the official bugler at Churchill Downs for 23 years. I asked him what he knows about the music's origin.

"It’s the first bugle call in the army manual, and it’s actually called 'First Call,' he said. But how did it go from soldiers to stallions? "It’s really difficult to find any information as to how it became associated with horse racing," Buttleman said.

Chris Goodlett, Director of Curatorial and Educational Affairs for the Kentucky Derby Museum, agrees. There are some things we know about the Call to the Post, and some things we just don't.

"It’s been used with races and at racetracks at least since the 1860s at the Saratoga meet," Goodlett said. "Maybe not quite clear as to how those came together, but it’s been used with racing for a very long time."

In the military, it’s used sort of like a stand-by signal. It lets soldiers or sailors know they have 5 minutes to gather together for morning or evening colors (the ceremony of raising or lowering the flag every day).

Back at the pagoda, Steve Buttleman wonders whether people in the late 1800s would have been more likely to have military experience or be around military operations.

"Chances are, people were more familiar with it," he said. "But other than that, it’s pure speculation on my part."

It could be that people were used to hearing First Call and knowing it meant something important was about to happen.

The question for this special Derby Edition of Curious Louisville came from Hannah ZImmerman. Listen to the story (and hear Steve Buttleman play the Call to the Post) in the player above. Download this story here, and ask a question of your own in the form below, or at CuriousLouisville.org.

Laura is LPM's Director of Podcasts & Special Projects. Email Laura at lellis@lpm.org.