04/26/2006 12:00AM

Van Clief leaving as CEO of Breeders' Cup, NTRA

D.G Van Clief

LEXINGTON, Ky. - D.G. Van Clief, the chief executive officer of the Breeders' Cup and the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, has informed the boards of both organizations that he intends to retire by the end of the year.

Van Clief will step down at a time of transition at the NTRA and Breeders' Cup, which merged their operations in 2001 and are in negotiations over the renewal of their operating agreement.

Van Clief, 57, has been involved with the Breeders' Cup since its formation in 1982, and he took the president's position in 1996. He assumed the chief executive's role at the NTRA in August 2004, when the NTRA's first permanent CEO, Tim Smith, resigned.

Van Clief said Wednesday that he had never intended to stay at the helm of the NTRA for more than two years. As for the Breeders' Cup, he cited his 24 years of employment by the organization and his desire to take a step back from the racing industry.

"After 24 years, I thought, from a personal standpoint, that we should bring the curtain down on my involvement," Van Clief said. "I don't think the Breeders' Cup could be in a better position to go forward than where it is right now."

Van Clief said that he would step down as soon as a replacement is named, though he would likely stay on for several months after the position is filled to serve in a "senior advisory role." He also said that he would likely retain his board positions on other racing organizations for the immediate future.

"My plans are indefinite at the moment, but I am looking at this as a real retirement," Van Clief said.

Members of both boards contacted on Wednesday referred comment to Bill Farish Jr., the chairman of the Breeders' Cup.

Farish said that Van Clief and the Breeders' Cup "are synonymous."

"I don't think the Breeders' Cup could have been in better hands for the last 24 years," Farish said.

In 1998, Van Clief was awarded the Eclipse Award of Merit, considered the sport's highest honor, for his work in the Thoroughbred industry. He is originally from Virginia, where his family owned and operated Nydrie Stud. His father, Daniel Van Clief, was the co-breeder of Natalma, the dam of Northern Dancer.

Several NTRA board members said that Van Clief's decision, announced in an e-mail on Tuesday morning and confirmed during a teleconference call on Tuesday afternoon, had caught them by surprise. The board members said that Van Clief had made the decision on his own, without pressure from members of the boards.

"Everybody's been talking for two years about a reorganization, and this just set in motion the necessary process for the transition," said one board member who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The combined boards of the Breeders' Cup and NTRA are next scheduled to meet on June 8 in Garden City, N.Y., near Belmont Park. In the meantime, Farish and Craig Fravel, the chairman of the NTRA board, will select a committee to review candidates for the positions, officials said.

One board member said that Greg Avioli, the NTRA's executive vice president, is being considered for both positions. Avioli, who heads the NTRA's lobbying efforts and was brought into the organization by Tim Smith from outside the racing industry, is most favored by members of the NTRA board, and his candidacy is not as strongly supported on the Breeders' Cup board.

Earlier this year, Van Clief oversaw the reorganization of the Breeders' Cup board, paring its members from 46 to 13. The reorganization was intended to make the Breeders' Cup more responsive in determining the strategic direction of both the Breeders' Cup and NTRA.

The agreement between the two groups expires at the end of 2010, and several Breeders' Cup board members have been aggressively seeking changes to the contract that would make the NTRA more accountable for its use of Breeders' Cup assets.

The merger of the two operations in 2001 has become a sticking point for some members of the Breeders' Cup board who have criticized the operating agreement for being of most benefit to the NTRA. Van Clief said that he expected the operating agreement to be renewed this year, though not without negotiation.

"Both boards have work to do to make sure that their goals are totally synchronized," Van Clief said. "It's another set of industry issues with which we have to deal, and those issues are imminently resolvable. It's not rocket science."