Photographs by AP file photo
In an announcement in Hot Springs in February 1998, Oaklawn President Charles Cella announces “America’s Million Dollar Dare,” a $1 million prize for the winner of the Oaklawn Handicap. The race, on April 4 of that year, was won by Precocity, a Bob Baffert horse. Cella helped introduce a number of innovations that have helped draw many top thoroughbreds as well as racing fans to the track.
Thursday, December 7, 2017
An icon of Arkansas thoroughbred racing for half a century died Wednesday.
Charles Cella, president of the Oaklawn Jockey Club in Hot Springs, died from complications of Parkinson's disease at his home in St. Louis. He was surrounded by family, according to a statement from his sons John and Louis Cella.
Charles Cella was 81.
He was diagnosed with Parkinson's 15 years ago, said Louis Cella.
"It was a tough go, but it was not unexpected," he said. "We all were there by his side. He passed peacefully. We're very thankful for that."
Cella was born Aug. 27, 1936, in St. Louis and was known to friends as Charlie, Seawolf or Mr. Red Socks (to friends on the golf course).
He earned a bachelor's degree in political science at Washington and Lee University in 1958. Afterward, he worked for his father's real estate business in St. Louis, was a nationally ranked squash player and rode bulls with a Wyoming rodeo.
"He wasn't very good," Louis Cella said. "He got bucked off in record time every time he got on it."
Cella's father, John Cella, told him to "Stop that silliness and get back home."
In 1968, Charles Cella took the reins at Oaklawn after his father's death and helped turn the Hot Springs racetrack into one of the nation's premier racing centers.
Under his leadership, the racetrack introduced a number of innovations that helped draw many of industry's top thoroughbreds to Hot Springs, including 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah.
The racetrack was founded in 1904 by Charles Cella's great-uncle and grandfather and has been owned by the Cella family ever since. That will continue to be, said Eric Jackson, who was general manager at Oaklawn racetrack for 30 years.
"We believe it's the oldest continuously owned by the same family sports franchise in America," said Jackson, who is now senior vice president at Oaklawn Jockey Club.
Although Charles Cella lived most of the time in St. Louis, he was a Hot Springs resident for at least three months of every year.
"He was one of those bigger-than-life characters," said Alex Lieblong of Conway, chairman of the Arkansas Racing Commission. "Although he lived in St. Louis, a lot of his heart and soul was in Oaklawn."
Lieblong said Cella ran Oaklawn like a family. Employees stayed for decades.
Cella invested in the operation, out of his own pocket, and put the horsemen first, Lieblong said.
"It wasn't all about the bottom line," he said. "You get some people who are just greedy, greedy. I never saw that side in Charles Cella."
Thoroughbred owner John Ed Anthony of Little Rock said Cella was "one of the most principled men I've ever known."
"He didn't come off his positions of integrity and fair play when it came to anything to do with racing or horsemanship," said Anthony, who has raced horses at Oaklawn since the 1970s. "He was a rigid advocate of the principled stand. He was admired widely in and out of the industry for that position."
Bill Cravens of Little Rock was an external auditor for Oaklawn. He described Cella as an intelligent man who loved life, family and thoroughbred racing.
Cravens said Cella also was an avid outdoorsman who enjoyed hunting, fishing and taking his family camping.
"He was a good shot," Cravens said. "He was an excellent marksman. Charlie was a real Renaissance man. He really was. I'm going to miss him."
Frank Fletcher, a car dealer and thoroughbred owner, has raced horses at Oaklawn since 1989.
"I race all over the United States, and in my opinion Oaklawn is the finest racetrack in America with the opportunity to earn purses by racing," Fletcher said. "He and his family have certainly built a wonderful opportunity for Arkansas. I think Mr. Cella is a legend in racing."
Ken Streett of St. Louis was a classmate of Cella's from the fifth grade through high school.
"He was extremely loyal to his friends all through his adult life," said Streett. "He didn't like a lot of BS, although he could regale you with tons of stories."
Streett said Cella was "an exceptionally good all-over athlete," particularly in baseball and basketball. Louis Cella said his father had contract offers from three professional baseball teams, including the St. Louis Cardinals, but he didn't take any of them.
Walter "Skip" Ebel III, Oaklawn's attorney for 20 years, said Cella helped Oaklawn transition into the 21st century.
In 2000, Oaklawn began "instant racing," which Louis Cella described as betting on historical races without knowing the names of horses or jockeys. Five years later, Oaklawn began allowing "electronic games of skill," he said.
When Oaklawn brought in electronic gaming machines, it kept the primary focus on quality horse racing, Ebel said. That didn't happen at all tracks, but Charles Cella made sure it did at Oaklawn.
"Once Cella made his decision, he stuck with it," Ebel said. "He didn't like to have long meetings. He liked to get right to the point and move on."
Cella also was a man of detail.
"He would design the trophies and whatnot," Ebel said. "He designed the statue of American Pharoah that's going to be displayed at Oaklawn, with the help of the sculptor."
American Pharoah won the Rebel Stakes and Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn in 2015 before going on to win the Triple Crown and Breeder's Cup Classic.
For Oaklawn's 100th anniversary, Cella offered a $5 million bonus if a horse could win the Rebel Stakes, Arkansas Derby and Kentucky Derby. Smarty Jones did just that.
"Mr. Cella had to pay off the $5 million," Ebel said. "He didn't mind paying that one off."
Other Oaklawn innovations under Cella included The Racing Festival of the South and full-card interstate simulcasting.
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.
Louis Cella explained how his father got the nickname Seawolf. After telling his children they should sail across the Atlantic Ocean, Charles Cella bought a 98-foot sailboat and launched the family from New York harbor toward Europe in 1985. They were a little off course, landing at Casablanca instead. But they eventually made it, said Louis Cella.
The boat was named Seawolf.
Survivors include his two sons, a daughter, Harriet Marshall, and eight grandchildren.
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