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REX NELSON: Corned beef and Cellas

They'll be selling corned-beef sandwiches for 50 cents at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs today. That promotion has become a given on the first Saturday of the race meet. The other given is that there will be a member of the Cella family calling the shots.

Louis Cella, whose family has been involved with the track for more than a century, was named last month as president of Oaklawn. He succeeds his father, Charles J. Cella, who died Dec. 6 at age 81. Charles Cella took over Oaklawn in 1968 following the death of his father, John G. Cella. In 2005, the Cella family and Oaklawn received an Eclipse Award of Merit for their contributions to racing. Louis Cella had, in essence, been running the track in recent years as his father's health declined. He arrived in Hot Springs earlier this week from his home in the St. Louis area and plans to spend most of the race meet--which ends April 14 with the Arkansas Derby--in the Spa City.

Family-owned thoroughbred tracks are rare these days. Conglomerates such as Churchill Downs Inc. and the Stronach Group own multiple tracks. It's also uncommon in an era of declining interest in thoroughbred racing to find an ownership group that's raising purses on a regular basis. In that respect, those in Arkansas who love racing are fortunate. In another respect, the Cella family is fortunate. That's because Arkansas remains one of the few places in the country where a day at the races is considered a major social event--a reason to get dressed up and invite friends to come along for the day. We're a throwback.

"Racing has been part of the Cella family DNA for generations, and we're committed to keeping Oaklawn one of the premier racetracks in the country for generations to come," Louis Cella said on the day he was named president.

Oaklawn was formed in 1904, but racing ceased in 1907. Michael Hodge writes for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: "Anti-gambling sentiments, driven by former Essex Park owner and former state legislator William McGuigan, rose in the form of a bill titled 'an act to prevent betting in any manner in this state on any horse race.' The bill was approved on Feb. 27, 1907, and necessitated the closing of Oaklawn at the end of the 1907 season and for a decade after that. The infield of the track continued to be used for other purposes and was the site of the Arkansas State Fair from 1906-14, including a 1910 fair that was attended by former President Theodore Roosevelt."

The Legislature passed a bill in 1915 to reopen the track, but that legislation was vetoed by Gov. George Washington Hays. Large fires in downtown Hot Springs hurt the tourism industry and led business leaders to begin efforts to resume racing, which joined boxing and baseball as the most popular sports in the country.

"In 1916, the Hot Springs Men's Business League reopened Oaklawn Park by setting a short racing schedule beginning on March 11 under the guise of a nonprofit civic enterprise," Hodge writes. "Pari-mutuel betting was not allowed, but this did not preclude any unofficial wagering. This 30-day season was a success and led to the reopening of both Oaklawn Park and Essex Park the following year with plans for the two tracks to split a full season. Unfortunately, the newly refurbished Essex Park burned the day after its grand reopening in 1917, thus moving the entire season to Oaklawn and marking the permanent end of racing at Essex."

Racing would become an on again-off again affair for years. Circuit Judge Scott Wood ruled in 1919 that the races were illegal, and the track was closed again. A bill legalizing racing was approved by the Legislature in 1929 and vetoed by Gov. Harvey Parnell. Hot Springs Mayor Leo P. McLaughlin, who ruled the city with an iron fist, helped create the Business Men's Racing Association in 1934 and announced that there would be races that spring regardless of what anyone said.

More than 8,000 people turned out on March 1, 1934. In 1935, legislation permitting racing with pari-mutuel wagering cleared the Legislature and was signed by Gov. Junius Futrell. The first Arkansas Derby was held in 1936 with a purse of $5,000. By 1961, what had been a 30-day meet was increased to 43 days. By the early 1980s, the track was hosting races for 60 days per year.

"The 1980s were great for Oaklawn," says Eric Jackson, the track's former general manager. "At the time, we didn't fully appreciate just how great they were. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, we began to face competition from new tracks in Oklahoma and Texas. We responded by instituting simulcasting, becoming the first track to offer full cards from other tracks. But while we were looking west toward Texas and Oklahoma, the casinos were being built to the east in Mississippi and to the south in Louisiana."

An initiative that would have allowed several casinos in Arkansas--including one at Oaklawn--was tossed off the ballot by the Arkansas Supreme Court just before the November 1994 election. Oaklawn made another run in 1996 that failed 61-39 percent. Jackson says: "We got sucker punched about a month before the election. We had gone into it with the idea that the companies operating casinos in Mississippi would not oppose us. ... Then they came after us. The ads were brutal."

In 2005, the Legislature passed an act permitting Oaklawn and Southland Park, a greyhound track at West Memphis, to install electronic forms of gaming if approved by the city or county. The result at Oaklawn has been a decade of growing purses.

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Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

Editorial on 01/13/2018

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