Iowa's Only Racetrack Bugler

Jun 28, 2016

You can't miss Dan Hartzer in his red fox hunting jacket, black top hat, and over-the-knee boots. After 65 years of playing trumpet, he is Iowa's only racetrack bugler, helping to preserve a racing tradition as iconic as the winner's circle or a photo finish.

"I have a microphone on the end of my horn but I play the bugle call, Call to Post," he says. "That tells everyone that the horses are coming onto the track, the horses are out there to be viewed and place their bets on them."

Storm clouds approach on Memorial Day Weekend.
Credit Iowa Public Radio

For 13 years, Hartzer has appeared before each race at the Prairie Meadows track in Altoona, with his elongated herald trumpet, taking his position in the winner's circle. The musical flourish goes back to the earliest days of horse racing, with origins in the military. Hartzer plays Call to the Post, turns 180 degrees, and does it again.

According to Racing Director Derron Heldt, a good bugler is hard to find.

"He's an entertainer, he interacts with the crowd when they're here, he's also a musician," he says.  "So I think he's both."

Hartzer considers himself a mascot. His extensive resume goes back to the old Ralph Zarnow Band. He's backed up Sonny and Cher and played with Bob Hope. But his biggest audience is today, since Prairie Meadows simulcasts the Altoona races to gamblers around the world.

The bugler's striking appearance makes him a fan favorite.
Credit Iowa Public Radio

"Probably one of the most iconic pictures you can take at a racetrack is with the bugler and his outfit," according to TV Manager Ryan Dunn. "(He) kind of alerts people on your social media that hey you're at a race track, that's one of the few things that's accessible to the public when they're at the races."

When Hartzer takes his horn to the audience, it's a daily double, as he gets involved with families and plays popular show tunes, like "The Godfather," and "Star Wars," or the realistic sound of a horse whinny. Sometimes holding an umbrella, Hartzer has a job to do, rain or shine.

"They've asked me to stay away from the paddock area," says Hartzer. "My bugling scares the horses. The horses are high spirited and they don't want any loud noises around where horses are warming up so I stay a good distance from there."

Omaha jockey Terry Thompson likes the tradition of Call to the Post.
Credit Iowa Public Radio

While other racetracks play recordings, jockey Terry Thompson says he appreciates the pageantry of a live bugler.

"When we come out of the paddock and hang a left hand turn to make the post parade he'll start playing Call to the Post and it's time to go to the races and for us jockeys it means it's time to go to work," he says.

The toughest part of a bugler's job is foul weather.

"Especially when it's cold, trying keep your lip in shape, trying to keep your horn warmed up, when it's 30, 40 degrees that brass horn is pretty cold," says Hartzer. "It's embarrassing if you miss a few notes cause you realize it’s going all over the United States." 

The track bugler won't disclose his pay, but when he started it was $175 a day. He earns it on inclement days like this, sometimes in the mud, or snow.

Hartzer pauses before playing "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head."
Credit Iowa Public Radio

"We did have snow in May a year or two ago," the trumpeter remembers. "Had like six inches and you couldn't see the horses more than 20 feet away. The TV crew was going crazy. They would film the race and you couldn't see anything but the white snow.

Hartzer has mastered all 34 notes of Call to the Post. He guesses he's played the tune over 13,000 times.