01/05/2006 12:00AM

Churchill begins search for Meeker's successor

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - Churchill Downs Inc. has begun seeking a replacement for its longtime chief executive officer, Tom Meeker, who is planning to retire no later than March 2007, Churchill announced on Thursday.

Meeker, 62, has been at the helm of Churchill for 22 years, guiding the company through its transition from a one-track business to a national racing conglomerate. According to a Churchill spokesperson, Julie Koenig Loignon, Meeker had informed the board in 2004 that his current three-year contract should not be renewed in succeeding years so that he could plan for a 2007 retirement.

A release from Churchill said that the company's board has formed a subcommittee that will work with an executive search firm to identify candidates for the position from both outside and inside the company, with the intent of hiring a replacement prior to Meeker's retirement. The release said that Meeker will step down prior to the expiration of his contract if "the succession-planning process yields a suitable candidate earlier in the process."

Koenig Loignon said that Meeker would not be available for comment.

"He's very supportive of this whole process, and he absolutely wants this to happen," Koenig Loignon said. "He's going to be involved. Having been at the head of the company for 22 years, he wants to see it go to the right person."

In October, Meeker began exercising stock options through a planned series of weekly sales that has resulted in a personal net gain of $3.6 million, according to documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Meeker's annual salary at Churchill is $585,000.

Meeker was hired as Churchill's chief executive in 1984 after serving several years as the company's general counsel. During his tenure, Churchill has purchased or merged with five racetracks - Arlington Park outside Chicago, Hollywood Park in Southern California, Calder Race Course in Miami, Fair Grounds in New Orleans, and Ellis Park in western Kentucky - and has built a racetrack, Hoosier Park, in Indiana. Last year, the company sold Hollywood to real-estate developers for a net gain of $69.9 million.

Meeker rarely speaks in public, but he is considered one of the most influential racing officials in the industry. Aside from turning Churchill into a national company, Meeker has focused on using full-card simulcasting to improve Churchill's business, and has continually pressed the industry to pursue new technologies to make betting on horses more convenient for horseplayers.

In recent years, Meeker has been critical of the racing industry's embrace of slot machines and the monopolistic arrangements many tracks have reached with state legislatures in getting the machines legalized. His comments, and his pending retirement, have coincided with Churchill becoming far more aggressive in seeking slot machines and casino gambling for its tracks, though the company has had limited success.

Koenig Loignon said that Meeker's stance on slot machines did not play a role in his retirement.

"Our core product is and will remain horse racing, and that is where our expertise is, but we're in a situation where we are being forced to compete with racetracks and facilities in other states that are offering products that our customers also enjoy," Koenig Loignon said. "I think he sees the reality of the landscape."