02/05/2010 1:00AM

With Cella in charge, race has legs


ARCADIA, Calif. - The news that Oaklawn Park will put up $5 million to see Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta square off in the Apple Blossom on April 3 has been received with the usual schizophrenia by the racing world and its camp followers.

At one extreme, there is grateful genuflection in the direction of Hot Springs and track owner Charles Cella. If there was another track exec with such an idea on the boil, he was keeping it a precious secret.

At the other end of the hall, milling around and mumbling, are the dedicated skeptics who have heard and seen this routine before. They will trot out such high-minded flops as the 1974 Miss Musket-Chris Evert match race at Hollywood Park (Miss Musket was eased), the 1975 National Thoroughbred Championship during Oak Tree (abandoned by television after one running, it limped through another, then quietly died), and the 1990 Arlington Park showdown among Sunday Silence, Easy Goer, and Criminal Type, which collapsed when two of the three went wrong.

There are even those who all of a sudden have been training horses for decades - who knew? - speculating wildly about whether Steve Asmussen can get a 4-year-old filly ready to run nine serious furlongs two months from now, or if John Shirreffs will dare load his 6-year-old mare on anything heading beyond the borders of California.

Here is the difference, though, between the amped-up Apple Blossom and any similar schemes that have been floated before. This one belongs to Charlie Cella, whose patrician stewardship over Oaklawn Park for the last 42 years has been the model for maverick, non-corporate ownership everywhere. Cella would not have gone out on this kind of limb for the publicity - he doesn't need it - and woe be to anyone who would string Cella along, telling him what they think he wants to hear.

Not that any of the principals in the corners of Rachel Alexandra or Zenyatta would consider such a thing. Owners Jess Jackson and Jerry Moss were consulted by Cella throughout the planning stages for this event. And while they have every right to warn that their horses must come first in terms of a final commitment, they would not have let Cella go this far without their tacit approval.

"I really think they both were heading this way, anyway," Cella said from his Oaklawn office Friday morning. "I can't imagine Rachel starting her year and not coming to the Apple Blossom. Down deep, I always thought she would be the easy one to get here. I had a real sinking spell when I heard they were going to retire Zenyatta, but then I saw her works earlier this year, she didn't look like a mare that was going to be bred. So I took a shot with Jerry Moss."

Cella, 73, was a boxer in his youth and raised in a baseball town, but racing has always been his sport.

"When I was growing up in St. Louis, people were dreaming about emulating Stan Musial, and I was dreaming about winning the Kentucky Derby," he said.

Now Cella has positioned his track to stage a race that will rival the Kentucky Derby for impact, at least within the Thoroughbred world. Not since the days of Seabiscuit and War Admiral has there been such a clamor for two popular champions to finally meet. And to make it happen, Cella is reaching into his own pocket.

"The racetrack can't afford it," Cella said. "We've just finished a very large construction project. So I have agreed to underwrite the race, and act individually as the bridge to help this thing along. Hopefully, we can get some revenue from television, sponsorship - that sort of thing. And the Arkansas division of the HBPA understands the importance of this race. They're willing to support it financially, as well. So I think it will work out. I sure hope it does, because I'm out on the line."

Cella continues to think in such broad strokes and vivid colors while waging a private battle with Parkinson's disease, the same affliction that claimed the life a year ago of Daily Racing Form executive columnist Joe Hirsch. Cella and Hirsch had been close for decades.

"It's a terrible disease," Cella said. "I try to take the medicine, and I'm plugging along. Joe and I sent mail to each other, trying to boost our morale. Of course, I've always been a fighter all my life."

Hopefully, as far as getting the two stars to Oaklawn for the Apple Blossom, the tough part is behind Cella, and he can sit back and enjoy the anticipation.

"You never know," Cella said. "A lot can happen, but I think we hit a home run with the bags loaded on this one. I think both Jess Jackson and Jerry Moss have an understanding of the plight of racing in America, and I know they both embrace the concept of what we've proposed. There's just one thing that kind of sticks in the back of my mind, though. I think they both might be a little afraid of losing. And I can appreciate that absolutely.

"So at the present time we're kind of like a traffic cop," he said. "We've laid the law down, now it's up to them to stay within the boundaries. We're still kind of feeling our way, but we're quick learners down here. I can hardly wait."