09/22/2009 11:00PM

McKeever getting silent treatment


BOSSIER CITY, La. - The phrase "Silence is Golden" certainly applies to racetrack superintendents. Chances are if nobody is talking about the track surface, the superintendent is doing his job.

"You only seem to hear about the track when there is a problem," said first-year Louisiana Downs trainer-turned-track-super Billy McKeever. "Almost everybody likes to blame the racing surface as one of the reasons they aren't winning races."

McKeever is best known as the owner and trainer of multiple stakes winner Crowned King. The local favorite won eight of his 48 starts and ran up close to $600,000 in earnings.

"He was my one big horse," McKeever said. "When I retired him in late 2006, I was about ready to give up training.

"I made an of-the-cuff remark to Louisiana Downs security chief Gil Highsmith in the grandstand one day that I needed a job. He said that the track was looking for a backstretch director and stall man. I really did not think much about it at the time but he helped me to follow up."

McKeever got that job and eventually became an understudy of track superintendent Brian Jabelmann. He succeeded Jabelmann when he accepted a similar position at Fair Grounds last year.

"Brian taught me to steer away from the organic material," McKeever said. "The conifer bark that the previous administration viewed as a savior was really a short-term solution. It helps you retain moisture and gives the surface some bounce but after a month of racing over it coupled with some rain, it starts to break down and you have to start over.

"Brian taught me you could achieve the same results with the right mix of clays, silt, and sand. A lot of people were skeptical but it has worked out."

The racing surface that McKeever inherited was at the margins of the parameters he wanted. Following the Quarter Horse meeting in March, McKeever had only a month and a half to get the surface ready before the Thoroughbred season began in early May.

"We added about 500 tons of material to the track," he said. "One of the things I wanted to do was blend the clays and sands myself. We get different material from different places and previously it was mixed over in Texas and then hauled over. What I did was to bring in all the raw materials and then set up a blending plant right in the parking lot."

McKeever's rookie season may have been summed up best by Rick Mettee, the Godolphin assistant trainer who last Saturday saddled Super Derby winner Regal Ransom after an extrenmely wet week here.

"I have to just say, given what the weather was all week, to have the track in that condition, the track guy, he did a heck of a job with it," Mettee said.

Handicappers have found the racing surface to be basically a non-issue when evaluating races.

"I categorize every winner," said assistant racing secretary and morning-line maker Russ Ramstad. "From wire-to-wire winners to deep closers, everybody gets a numeric value attached. The wire jobs get a negative figure, which translates through the stalkers, who are neutral, to the closers, who get a positive number. We have had 700 or so races this meet and the biggest deviation I've had was a minus 30. We used to get that in a week here years ago."

McKeever's duties include overseeing the turf course. He says his experiences as a farmer has helped with that aspect of his job.

"A lot of turf guys are golf course types," he said. "As a farmer, I bring a different type of program, a bit more of a rigid one regarding what needs to be done with regard to pest control and fertilization. It's not always conventional but it seems to work."

Just as long as no one is talking about it.