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Oaklawn's patriarch leaves legacy of growth

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Charles J. Cella, whose innovative leadership over the course of the past half century helped turn Oaklawn Park into one of the nation's premier racing centers, has died of complications from Parkinson's disease, his family said Wednesday. He was 81.

Cella, the longtime president and chairman of the board of Oaklawn Jockey Club, was at home in St. Louis surrounded by family when he died, according to sons John and Louis Cella, Oaklawn Racing & Gaming said in a news release.

Cella, Oaklawn's president since 1968, and his family have owned and operated the track since its founding in 1904.

"Under his direction, Oaklawn developed into one of the largest and most respected racing centers in America. Oaklawn is credited with numerous innovations in the sport including The Racing Festival of the South, full-card interstate simulcasting and Instant Racing," the release said.

In addition to Oaklawn, Cella was president of Southwestern Enterprises Inc. and Southern Real Estate and Financial Co. He also owned and raced numerous notable thoroughbreds, including 1995 Breeders' Cup Turf champion Northern Spur, it said.

Survivors include his two sons and a daughter, Harriet Marshall, and eight grandchildren.

"At this time of great sadness for our family, we find comfort in knowing that one of the great joys in his life was seeing Oaklawn develop into a national treasure with such a significant economic impact on Arkansas. In addition to the holidays with his family, his favorite time of the year was always the Oaklawn racing season with fans, horsemen and staff," the Cella family said in a statement released by Oaklawn.

Arrangements will be announced when finalized.

"If you worked for Charles, you better be ready to go full speed, because that's the pace we have had at Oaklawn for decades," Oaklawn's senior vice president, Eric Jackson, said Wednesday when asked to reflect on his relationship with Cella. Jackson served as general manager for 30 years under Cella before moving into the senior vice president role last year.

"He had a vision for Oaklawn when he took it over from his father, and he spent his life trying to attain that vision," Jackson said.

"And if you were part of the inner circle, it was mandatory that you share the vision. And what we did was we worked toward that day after day, and obviously it's never a straight line. But when you look at where Oaklawn is today and where it was in the late '90s, it's really quite remarkable, both in quality of racing and the impact that Oaklawn has on Hot Springs and Arkansas. It's really a remarkable legacy," Jackson said.

"The '80s were terrific; we didn't fully appreciate how terrific they were until they ceased being terrific," Jackson said, recalling the impact of the growth of tracks and casinos in surrounding states.

"The '90s, they were a dark decade. Late in the '90s, I wasn't sure how Oaklawn was going to survive, or if Oaklawn would survive."

Oaklawn has contractual agreements with horsemen that requires it to put a certain amount of revenues into purses. And late in the 1990s, Cella called and said, "I want to put more," Jackson recalled.

Oaklawn's accountants pointed out that if Cella put in more, "and we don't make it, you don't get it back," Jackson said.

"And he said, 'Whether we make it or not, I'm not going to allow the level of quality to go down. If that happens, we might as well not make it.'

"So he overpaid purses out of his back pocket for several years, by millions of dollars, with no realistic way to believe that that would ever get repaid," Jackson said.

"If you want to look at what 'saved' Oaklawn, I think it would be the period of '95 through '99, when he paid more than he had to, because he wanted to keep the quality up," he said.

As a result, Oaklawn was able to develop innovative programs, including Instant Racing, and "we were able to turn the corner and fight our way back."

"Had he not done that, when I look back on the '90s, had he not done that, I don't think we would have ever gotten to Instant Racing," Jackson said.

"It's hard to see how Oaklawn could have survived otherwise."

City officials offered their condolences to the Cella family on Wednesday, including Hot Springs Mayor Pat McCabe.

"Our thoughts today are with Charles J. Cella's immediate family along with his Oaklawn Jockey Club family, as the Hot Springs community shares in their loss," McCabe said in a statement released by the city of Hot Springs.

"For 113 years, Oaklawn and Hot Springs have been closely intertwined. As Oaklawn's president and chairman over a span of nearly 50 years, Mr. Cella expanded operations and created countless jobs. As a result of Mr. Cella's leadership, innovation and business intuition, Oaklawn continues to have a profound impact on tourism, educational opportunities and economic growth in Hot Springs as well as the State of Arkansas. Through Mr. Cella's generosity and loyalty to Hot Springs, his legacy will continue to influence future generations," McCabe said.

"Hot Springs' tourism industry and all our citizens are forever indebted to Mr. Charles J. Cella, chairman of Oaklawn, for his vision and willingness to sacrifice immediate gain in order to create Arkansas' greatest tourism destination and for his often unrecognized personal generosity in creating and supporting some of Hot Springs' most important economic development activities and institutions," Steve Arrison, CEO of Visit Hot Springs, said in a statement released Wednesday.

"We see the fruits of his efforts every day throughout our city. A man of Mr. Cella's qualities comes along maybe once in a lifetime, and all of us in Hot Springs will miss him greatly," Arrison said.

The contributions of Cella and his family reach beyond the track. In the past decade, they have provided more than $2 million in scholarships for local students through the Oaklawn Foundation.

Cella and his family donated $1 million in September 2006 to "create a funding vehicle that would distribute funds to Garland County student scholarships and senior programs."

The Oaklawn Foundation has provided $2.172 million in 694 scholarships since 2008. The 2017-18 awards included 115 $3,000 scholarships and three designated $5,000 awards.

"The unique thing about the Oaklawn Foundation besides its size and being one of the few foundations like it, anywhere, is that it's really the first time that he (Cella) agreed to take credit for what he was doing," Jackson said.

"He has had significant philanthropies throughout his life, but he generally did it nearly anonymously, here in Arkansas and elsewhere," Jackson said.

"He didn't believe in giving money so that you could pat yourself on the back, but there wasn't any way that we could structure the Oaklawn Foundation and keep it anonymous," Jackson said.

"So we had to set it up the way we set it up, and turn it over to an independent board of community leaders. But that's just about the only time that he was agreeable to getting the credit for doing that sort of thing," he said.

Local on 12/07/2017

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