D.G. Van Clief Jr., president of Breeders' Cup since 1996 and commissioner of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association since late summer of 2004, will retire from both positions by the end of this year.
The longtime racing executive who began at Breeders' Cup as executive director in 1982 replaced Tim Smith, the first commissioner of the NTRA, when Smith moved to New York to established Friends of New York Racing.
When he took over as NTRA chairman two years ago, Van Clief indicated he planned to serve for two years. On April 26, after his retirement was announced, he told The Blood-Horse the move is "a mutual decision between me and both boards of directors."
"My focus is going to be on the immediate future, doing what needs to be done with the boards and to ensure a smooth chief executive officer transition," Van Clief said. "My suspicion is I'll have my hands full and be totally focused on the transition process."
Breeders' Cup chairman Bill Farish and NTRA chairman Craig Fravel will put together a working committee to oversee the process. Breeders' Cup and the NTRA will have a joint board meeting in June, and a decision apparently could be made by then.
The second-in-command on the executive side is Greg Avioli, currently senior vice president of legislation and corporate development. Avioli became deputy commissioner of the NTRA in 2000, and has overseen business operations of Breeders' Cup and the NTRA for five years.
When asked if Avioli is a candidate to take over as CEO, Van Clief said: "Personally, I think Greg Avioli is a strong contender."
Van Clief said he expects to stay on in a "senior advisory role" even after a CEO is in place to assist with the transition. He said he expects Breeders' Cup and NTRA in the future will operate in a "much more closely knit manner. As the agendas converge, operating with two boards (that don't regularly meet together) makes it impossible to be efficient. We need to put the two boards in the same room."
Alan Foreman, chief executive officer of the Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association and an original NTRA board member, said Van Clief informed the board it was the appropriate time to move on because Breeders' Cup and the NTRA are involved in transition planning.
"Whoever steps into those shoes should have a fresh start," Foreman said. "D.G. moved to accelerate the transition. It's a great disappointment that D.G. is retiring because he has been stalwart of the industry, and will go down as one of the great leaders in the industry. To me it's personal, because when I joined the NTRA board, the first person who said Alan Foreman rose to the occasion was D.G."
Farish said Van Clief has been a "guiding force and steady hand throughout the entire existence of both the Breeders' Cup and NTRA," while Fravel said Van Clief is "recognized worldwide as an industry leader, and he has done a remarkable job of balancing the priorities of the NTRA and Breeders' Cup."
The NTRA and Breeders' Cup joint management agreement extends through 2010 but is subject to renewal this year. Both boards of directors are currently reviewing the arrangement. Breeders' Cup has said it would like to see long-term commitments by NTRA members before it makes a decision.
The larger Breeders' Cup board elected earlier this year has taken a more active role in NTRA finances, much of which come from Breeders' Cup. There has been talk of other structural changes in the NTRA, but no plans have been made public.
Foreman, when asked about the long-term health of the NTRA, said he believes the organization remains essential to the industry. He mentioned legislative endeavors and political action, wagering integrity and security, sponsorships, and marketing.
"The NTRA has been and continues to perform essential functions, the most important of which is work in Washington, D.C.," Foreman said. "And no other organization has done more to promote racing than the NTRA. It's essential that it continue. (These areas) are not a function of Breeders' Cup."
Van Clief was named founding chairman of the NTRA and served as its interim chief executive officer until April 1998, when Smith was hired. When Breeders' Cup and the NTRA combined their business operations, Van Clief assumed the title of NTRA vice chairman in addition to his duties as Breeders' Cup president.
Van Clief, who received the Eclipse Award of Merit in 1998 for his years of service to Thoroughbred racing, is chairman of Fasig-Tipton Co.