Oaklawn gains racing heights under Cella


Charles J. Cella lived long enough to see Oaklawn Park become the racetrack of his dreams -- "the Saratoga of the South," or something close.

The 2018 Oaklawn season, beginning in January and for which horses are currently stabled and in training, would mark Cella's 50th anniversary as the racetrack's president. A fourth-generation racing executive, but admittedly unprepared to take over after his father's sudden death in 1968, Cella grew into the leadership role with help of a few choice aides.

With J. Sweeney Grant (and later W.T. Bishop) as general manager, Cella oversaw several phases of expansion during a decade of growth that revitalized the once sleepy Hot Springs track. Both a racing purist and visionary, Cella ushered in the festival concept of packaging major events. Oaklawn's Racing Festival of the South, an April tradition since the 1970s, became a standard for the industry.

Hot Springs native Eric Jackson, the track's first operations director, became general manager after Bishop's passing in 1987 and helped Cella withstand the most serious economic challenge to Oaklawn's future. The 2000 launch of Instant Racing, a game based on the outcomes of past races, provided relief from casinos in neighboring states. Surviving court challenges, Oaklawn finally pushed through legislation that resulted in expanded gaming at the track, ensuring its future.

With revenue streams incuding simulcast wagering, Oaklawn has become a year-round entertainment center, one that almost never sleeps.

A showman at heart, Cella pulled out all the stops for Oaklawn's centennial racing season in 2004, boldly announcing a $5 million bonus for a 3-year-old who could sweep three major races including the Kentucky Derby. The undefeated Smarty Jones proved up to the task, winning the Rebel Stakes and Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn and prompting Cella to seek additional insurance for the bonus offer. After Smarty Jones won the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, Cella led an Oaklawn delegation to Philadelphia Park (where Smarty's racing career began) and presented a $5 million check to the horse's ailing owner.

For this magnanimous gesture, Cella received the Eclipse Award's Order of Merit in 2005.

"[Mr. Cella] was a great sportsman. He loved Oaklawn," said John Servis, Smarty Jones' trainer, upon hearing of Cella's death Wednesday at age 81. "Oaklawn was good to me, and Mr. Cella was really good to me and my family. It's a sad day."

Cella grew up in St. Louis and, like many, idolized Stan Musial, the Hall of Fame outfielder who played his entire career for the hometown Cardinals. Horse racing proved a larger influence in Cella's life than baseball, and whatever dreams he had of playing for the Cardinals were secondary to owning a Kentucky Derby winner.

Seeing one of his horses wear the Derby winner's blanket of roses at Churchill Downs remained a bucket-list item for Cella until his death. But both at home and on the road, Cella operated a competitive stable for decades and won major races.

Cella's biggest victory as a racing owner came in the 1995 Breeders' Cup Turf at New York's Belmont Park. With two Hall of Famers (trainer Ron McAnally and jockey Chris McCarron) in his corner, Cella's high-priced acquisition Northern Spur overcame a soggy course to earn the Eclipse Award as that year's leading male turf horse.

In later life, Cella savored the 2013 Oaklawn triumphs of multiple stakes winner Cyber Secret in the Razorback and Oaklawn handicaps. The Oaklawn Handicap victory came in a field with the previous year's Breeders' Cup Classic winner, Fort Larned.

"I'm thrilled for Mr. Cella," trainer Lynn Whiting said at the time. "The Razorback was his first graded win at his home track. Now, he's won his second." (Whiting, trainer of 1992 Kentucky Derby winner Lil E. Tee, died in April.)

Son Louis Cella added, "Speaking for myself, this is so great for dad with as much as he's put into the game for so long."

Charles Cella, deflecting credit, said, "It's not about me owning the track. It's about the horse. He's such a great horse and he has a great trainer."

In Cella's time, six future Kentucky Derby winners raced at Oaklawn, three winning the Arkansas Derby and three finishing second in the track's oldest and richest race ($1 million since the track's 2004 centennial). Losing to Birdstone in the Belmont Stakes, Smarty Jones was denied the Triple Crown after winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. American Pharoah went all the way in 2015, Oaklawn basking in his glory after Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert sent the colt to Hot Springs for winning preps in the Rebel and Arkansas Derby.

"I thought it was spectacular," Cella said in a 2015 interview with Daily Racing Form. "The horse proved something special, running into history. I must have gotten a hundred calls after the race.

"It's fun to watch the horses mature. That's what racing is all about, the 3-year-olds, to see where they're going."

From A (American Pharoah) to Z (supermare Zenyatta), Oaklawn, like the horses that competed there, became a racing treasure. And, Charles Cella witnessed it all.

Sports on 12/07/2017

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