Greg Avioli, president and chief executive officer of Breeders' Cup Ltd., resigned from the organization on Friday to take a similar role with Frank Stronach's MI Developments.
Avioli, who had been the chief executive of Breeders' Cup for nearly five years, has signed an employment agreement to join MI Developments as president and CEO of the newly created racing and gaming division. As part of the position, Avioli will oversee assets that will include such Magna-owned tracks as Gulfstream Park and Santa Anita Park.
"It was a difficult decision because I've had such a tremendous opportunity with the Breeders' Cup Board, particularly (chairman) Bill Farish, and together we've been able to accomplish some great things," Avioli said on Friday. "But Frank (Stronach) really wants to revitalize these assets and help grow American racing at a very important time.
"This is a pretty amazing group of assets," Avioli continued. "You have basically a brand new racetrack and casino in a great part of Miami (Gulfstream), to Santa Anita and with Maryland racing you have a whole link to the Triple Crown. As much as any one person in the United States, Frank has devoted his time and his energy toward improving racing. So when he asked me to help him take it to the next level, it was a pretty easy decision."
Avioli was officially named chief executive of Breeders' Cup Ltd. in 2006 after serving as the interim president and CEO for six months. Breeders' Cup has called a meeting of the board for early next week to discuss interim leadership and steps to be taken to identify the organization's next CEO.
"It was a bit of a surprise but I had talked to Greg previously and knew it was a possibility," Breeders' Cup chairman Bill Farish said of Avioli's departure. "I think, luckily, the Breeders' Cup is positioned very well as the moment.
"Greg leaves at a time when we're coming off one of our best Breeders' Cups ever. The fact that we're going back to Churchill Downs this year is certainly a positive for any new candidate as it's generally our best performing venue. So it gives us a chance to get somebody at a time when things are very stable."
During his tenure at the helm of Breeders' Cup, Avioli oversaw one of the milestone changes in the program's history as the World Championships expanded from a one-day, eight-race showcase to a two-day affair that now features 14 contests.
While the expansion of the Breeders' Cup races was met with criticism by those who felt the championship program was now watered down, total purses increased from $14 million to $25.5 million from 2005 to 2010.
Both attendance and handle for the 2010 Breeders' Cup World Championships at Churchill Downs increased over the previous year's event at Santa Anita Park and the 2010 revenue of more than $33 million was an all-time Breeders' Cup record.
"Greg's time (with Breeders' Cup) coincides with my time so I've watched him all along," Farish said. "I think it started from separating from the NTRA (in 2006) which was a very rancorous process and then expanding the Breeders' Cup to 2 days and 14 races and watching revenue grow from $15 million to nearly $35 million. It's been a time of great growth for the Breeders' Cup and I think he's done a great job."
In addition to the expansion of the World Championships, the Breeders' Cup also created the "Win and You're In" program under Avioli which awards automatic berths into Breeders' Cup races for horses who win specially designated stakes races.
"It is never easy to go but at the same time, it's always good to leave a place better than you found it and I think we can say with the Breeders' Cup that's probably true," Avioli said.
Farish said that although the board will meet next week, there is no specific time frame set for choosing a new CEO and the search could be opened up to both internal and external candidates.
"I think if there is an obvious candidate the board finds itself in agreement on, that might mean we don't have to do a full search," Farish said. "But a full search is possible. I don't want to pre-determine that."
Farish added that Avioli's departure was not expected to impact the time frame in which Breeders' Cup officials would determine and announce a 2012 host site for its World Championships. This year's Breeders' Cup World Championships will be at Churchill Downs for a record eighth time this November.
"I don't think it affects (the 2012 decision) at all," Farish said. "We have a host site selection committee that is working all the time and that will continue."