04/02/2004 12:00AM

Oaklawn does everything big

Jeff Coady/Coady Photography
"If we are going to maintain a quality operation, we are going to have to find an expanded form of wagering. Instant racing was the anwer." - Oaklawn owner Charles Cella

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - The all-star Racing Festival of the South is underway at Oaklawn Park, with the four biggest races of the meet packed into an eight-day feast, which means this final week of the track's centennial season will be drawing thousands of visitors from well beyond the friendly confines of surrounding Garland County.

For those unfamiliar with the Oaklawn phenomenon, here is a partial list of modern racetrack amenities that those visitors will not find at the Central Avenue landmark:

* A turf course
* An outdoor paddock
* A simulcast pavilion
* Rock concerts
* Logos for Magna Entertainment or Churchill Downs

There will be a Dixieland band roaming the grandstand next Saturday, Arkansas Derby Day, food stands crammed with corned beef and oysters, and there is a casino, of sorts. But for the most part, Oaklawn Park revels in its reputation as the last of the independents, a throwback racetrack to the days of close-knit family ownership and stubborn individualism in the face of national trends.

Charles Cella, the 68-year-old president of the track, represents a third generation of Oaklawn ownership, and there is a fourth ready to carry the torch when he steps aside. Cella prides himself on being buried hip deep in tradition, a flamboyant dinosaur who has turned geographic isolation into a drawing card for horseplayers and horsemen who have grown weary of the corporate racing chains.

"How do you like our little racetrack?" Cella will say in a transparent attempt to disarm comparisons with Belmont, Santa Anita, and the other big-shouldered outfits.

"Little," being relative, belies the fact that Oaklawn purses and Oaklawn tradition have consistently lured some of the biggest names in racing over the past 20 years. Getting horses and people from far afield to a dowager resort town like Hot Springs involves any number of planes, trains, and automobiles, but enough have made the trip each spring to put Oaklawn's top events consistently on the map.

"We are kind of out of the way," Cella conceded. About a half hour from the nearest interstate, to be precise, and a full hour from Little Rock National Airport. "It takes some effort to get here. But we like to think it's worth the trip."

Cella, a boxer in his youth, will point out that he was the last racetrack operator to expand the exotic wagering menu, the last to offer Sunday racing, and one of the last to back the use of Lasix as a race-day medication. Once, when he was displeased with the downgrading of his marquee Apple Blossom Handicap, he simply turned his back on the graded race system and yanked the Oaklawn stakes program from consideration.

Still, Cella was among the earliest pioneers of interstate, commingled, off-season simulcasting, when Oaklawn and Arlington began exchanging signals some 14 years ago. And Cella is hardly mass-market shy when it comes to promoting his top events. He is offering a $1 million purse on the Arkansas Derby for the first time this year, plus a $5 million bonus if a horse can sweep Oaklawn's Rebel Handicap, the Arkansas Derby, and the Kentucky Derby.

That does not explain, however, the greatest contradiction of all. Charles J. Cella, larger than life and firmly in charge since the death of his father, John Cella, in 1968, now runs a racetrack that offers a room full of 154 video game terminals that looks, feels, and smells very much like a casino.

"It was either sink or swim," Cella explained. "We've heard of potential business failures of a track like Churchill Downs because they have one casino nearby. Well, we have about 300 casinos abutting our state lines, to the south, east, west and north - 300!

"If we are going to maintain a quality operation, we are going to have to find an expanded form of wagering," Cella said. "Instant Racing was the answer. Our patrons seem to enjoy it. And, most importantly, our purses have benefited."

By the end of 2004, Oaklawn purses will receive an estimated $1 million from a projected Instant Racing handle of $70 million. To date, Instant Racing has handled $16.4 million dollars in 2004. Instant Racing takeout is 10 percent, which is divided among the state (20 percent), purses (15 percent), state breeders (1 percent), and rights fees for racing images (3 percent). The balance goes to the partnership of Oaklawn Park and AmTote, which developed Instant Racing from scratch under the company banner RaceTech Inc.

It is not true that Eric Jackson lays awake nights dreaming up new games for the Instant Racing menu. Just every other night. As Oaklawn's general manager, the 52-year-old Jackson was the key executive in the development of Instant Racing with AmTote, and he continues to brainstorm new game formats alongside a stable full of Gen-X RaceTech computer programmers. Jackson is the one without the piercings and tattoos.

"Arkansas law requires a game of chance to have an element of skill, which means no lotteries," Jackson pointed out. "Instant Racing uses large library of videotaped races from a number of tracks, with each race analyzed through a variety of handicapping elements - jockey stats, trainer stats, horse records, speed - the same things parimutuel horseplayers use."

Just up a short flight of stairs from Cella's office and across a hallway that was once the exclusive domain of Oaklawn's shoeshine stand, a special room dedicated to Instant Racing hummed with the electronic intensity of a grown-up VLT parlor.

"To tell you the truth, I've never played it," Cella confessed. "I'm a horse guy. I played the prototype when we first set it up. But I've never played in that room. I suppose when I come down here in the off season I'll futz around with it a little."

Chances are, Cella would draw a sizeable crowd on a racing day if he settled in to play Yukon Willie's Gold Rush, Thoroughbred Mania, or one of the other five games currently offered. A first-time visitor was able to slip beneath the radar, though, and discovered that Jackson was right. Basic handicapping elements have been programmed into each game, and each game spins to the results of a real horse race from the past. A small window displays the final yards of the race.

Players can be as subjective as they like, or - in the vast majority of the games - they can use a "handicapper helper" function that automatically chooses numbers based on those handicapping elements.

This, of course, speeds play. And fast play makes Instant Racing a gold mine. For the 2005 Oaklawn season, the room will be expanded and another 50 machines added. The long-range goal is a second-level dedicated to play, with an outdoor patio bringing the live racing experience closer to Instant Racing patrons.

"Because of Instant Racing, we now face the challenge of deciding how we are going to expand, and improve our facilities," Jackson said. "Not many racetracks have that problem these days."

And, as Cella noted, Instant Racing seems far from its saturation point. For now, though, I recommend the game called Across the Board for any crossover horseplayers, and stay away from machine number 8307. That baby is primed.