07/27/2004 12:00AM

Smith leaves NTRA to seek New York job

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - Tim Smith, the commissioner and chief executive officer of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, announced his resignation Tuesday in order to pursue the top job at the embattled New York Racing Association.

Smith, 56, made the announcement at an NTRA board meeting. His resignation, which had been widely speculated upon, is effective Sept. 1.

Smith will be leaving after six years as the only commissioner of the NTRA, which was formed in 1998 to function as the sport's league office. Despite the resignation, Smith said Tuesday that he has not made a final decision to join NYRA, which has been searching for a chief executive as part of a court-ordered restructuring.

Smith, a former PGA Tour official, said he would make the decision by the end of August, after discussing the position with New York racing officials, regulators, and legislators. As a quasi-governmental entity that is subject to a variety of regulations, NYRA is one of the country's most politically complicated racing organizations.

"I'm not in any particular rush," Smith said. "There are a lot of bases to touch, particularly in New York. There's an obvious set of challenges there, but there's also a great opportunity for the future."

NYRA has been under extraordinary financial and political pressure of late. It was targeted by federal and state regulators who uncovered tax evasion schemes by 21 of the association's mutuel tellers and who accused NYRA management of poor oversight. As a result, NYRA was ordered to restructure, pay a $3 million fine, and agree to oversight by a court-appointed law firm.

The NYRA franchise, which is awarded by the state, is set to expire at the end of 2007. The association has been hoping to get the franchise extended through legislation, but those efforts have so far been blocked. At the same time, lobbyists for Magna Entertainment Corp., the country's largest racetrack operator, have taken steps to try to land the franchise.

Smith told board members in a confidential memo on July 16 that he was negotiating with NYRA. Smith informed the NTRA board in order to address any possible conflicts of interest as he led the NTRA through other negotiations with member tracks, including NYRA. The NTRA is in talks with NYRA to reach an agreement for Belmont Park to be the site of the 2005 Breeders' Cup, a process from which Smith said he would recuse himself. NYRA operates Aqueduct, Belmont, and Saratoga.

The NTRA board decided on Tuesday to set a timetable and establish the qualifications for Smith's replacement at the board's next quarterly meeting, on Sept. 24, according to NTRA officials. In the meantime, the NTRA will be headed by D.G. Van Clief, who is the president of Breeders' Cup Ltd. - which merged with the NTRA in 2001 - and the NTRA's vice chairman. Van Clief will become the association's acting commissioner and chief executive, while the NTRA's deputy commissioner, Greg Avioli, will be promoted to the association's president and chief operating officer.

Van Clief, who served as the NTRA's interim chief executive before the association's official launch in April 1998, did not rule himself out as a permanent successor.

"Obviously, I have an interest in the position," Van Clief said. But Van Clief also said his involvement would depend on the board's recommendations as to what qualifications the next commissioner should have.

Smith was likely one of the highest-paid officials in the racing industry. His salary at the NTRA was $750,000 a year. He recently signed a contract extension through 2005.

The NTRA is funded by a broad cross-section of the racing industry, including membership dues from racetrack and horsemen's groups. Many of those membership agreements expire at the end of 2004, and the NTRA has recently been actively negotiating with the members to renew. On Tuesday, the NTRA said that Magna, which owns 13 tracks, had renewed its commitment to the NTRA through the end of 2005.