06/09/2006 12:00AM

Avioli interim head of NTRA, Breeders' Cup

Jessica East/Coady Photography
Greg Avioli will have a three- to six-month trial, officials said.

Greg Avioli, the chief operating officer of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association who has played a leading role in guiding the NTRA's federal lobbying efforts, was appointed the interim chief executive officer of both the NTRA and its partner, Breeders' Cup Ltd., at a joint meeting of the two organizations' boards of directors on Thursday in Garden City, N.Y., according to the NTRA.

Avioli's appointment comes six weeks after D.G. Van Clief, the former chief executive of both organizations, announced his intention to retire from both positions. Avioli, 41, will start his duties on July 1. Van Clief will remain chief executive until then, and will likely work with the NTRA through the end of the year, NTRA officials said Friday. Van Clief was also named chairman emeritus at the board meeting.

The appointment of Avioli as the interim chief of both organizations has the potential to draw out a lingering dispute between the two groups over the leadership of their respective organizations. According to several officials, Avioli is considered a leading candidate for the chief executive role at both organizations, but because some members of the Breeders' Cup board are intent on creating a chief executive for each group, a rift may erupt if the NTRA pushes its desire to install Avioli as permanent chief executive. Members of the NTRA board are not as adamant about having co-chief executives as the Breeders' Cup board members are, the officials said.

The NTRA and the Breeders' Cup are engaged in a sometimes contentious re-examination of their relationship, six years after the two organizations merged but kept separate boards. Some Breeders' Cup board members have complained that the NTRA wields too much influence over the Breeders' Cup's direction and budget. The NTRA was expected to present a proposal at Thursday's meeting that would separate the two group's budgets, NTRA officials said earlier this week, although the NTRA's senior vice president, Keith Chamblin, said Friday that the split-budget proposal is only one option on the table.

"The budgets are not currently separate and won't be in 2006, and there are a number of scenarios in which the joint operating agreement could be structured in 2007, with several of those separate and others joint," Chamblin said. "It's up in the air at this point."

The groups' joint operating agreement expires at the end of this year, though negotiations continue on a renewal of the agreement ahead of a Sept. 1 deadline. Any new agreement is expected to take a different form, however.

"I continue to remain optimistic that the two boards see clear benefits for operating under a centrally aligned structure," Chamblin said.

Avioli was brought into the NTRA by Tim Smith, the NTRA's first permanent chief executive officer, who was a former marketing and political strategist. In addition to his position as chief operating officer, Avioli has also acted as the NTRA's interim chief financial officer following the resignation on April 1 of Ferguson Taylor, the longtime CFO of Breeders' Cup who moved to the NTRA side after the two groups merged in 2001.

Two officials close to the boards said that Avioli is expected to be given a three- to six-month trial period at the top of the organizations "to see what he can accomplish" before any decision to hire an executive search firm. A transition committee is reluctant to pull the trigger on a permanent executive until negotiations over a new joint operating agreement are complete, the officials said.

The Thursday meeting was the second joint meeting held this year. NTRA and Breeders' Cup officials have described the meetings as negotiations over the future direction of both organizations during a time of "transition" marked most significantly by the departure of Van Clief and the continuing concerns of the Breeders' Cup board.

Chamblin said that the boards will likely meet again in several months, but no date has been set.