Updated on 12/08/2017 10:08AM

Oaklawn Park owner Cella dies at 81

Courtesy of Oaklawn Park
Charles Cella

Charles J. Cella, whose vision and sportsmanship made Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark., a hotbed for 3-year-olds like eventual Triple Crown winner American Pharoah, died Wednesday from complications of Parkinson’s disease. He was 81.

Cella died at home in St. Louis, surrounded by family, according to his sons, John and Lou Cella.

Cella became president of Oaklawn, owned by his family, in 1968 and was the driving force behind building up the track’s 3-year-old program. His most significant move came in 2004, when he raised the purse of the Arkansas Derby to $1 million as part of the track’s 100th season and offered a $5 million bonus to the horse who could sweep the track’s Rebel Stakes, the Arkansas Derby and the Kentucky Derby. Smarty Jones cashed, and for his sportsmanship, Cella and his family received an Eclipse Award of Merit.

“I really don't know anybody who had a greater passion for Thoroughbred racing than Charles Cella,” said Eric Jackson, senior vice president of Oaklawn. “It was one of the great joys of his life to watch Oaklawn develop and become a significant racing center and a significant stop on the American racing calendar."

Cella’s family shared similar sentiments in a statement released through Oaklawn. 

“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,” the statement read. “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.”

Smarty Jones put the spotlight on Oaklawn after he zipped through the track’s 3-year-old program in 2004, then captured the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. During that period, the horse’s trainer, John Servis, came to personally know Cella.

"I was talking to a trainer yesterday, and we were talking about racetracks, and he was saying he’d never been to Oaklawn,” Servis said Wednesday. “I was telling him how nice it was and how Mr. Cella is just a great sportsman. And not just racing. I was telling him how he used to have a group of trainers come to his house for dinner every night of the NCAA championship basketball games. We watched in his house at the eighth pole. [The trainer] was ready to pack up and head to Oaklawn!

“[Mr. Cella] was a great sportsman. He loved Oaklawn. Oaklawn was good to me, and Mr. Cella was really good to me and my family. It’s a sad day.”

Following Smarty Jones, the litany of good 3-year-olds kept coming through Oaklawn – its purses surging from electronic games – before winning various legs of the Triple Crown, among them Afleet Alex, Creator, Curlin, Lookin At Lucky, Oxbow, Rachel Alexandra, Super Saver, and Summer Bird.   

But a pinnacle was reached in 2015, when champion American Pharoah launched his 3-year-old campaign at Oaklawn, winning the Rebel Stakes and the Arkansas Derby. From there, he went on to become just the 12th horse in history to win the Triple Crown. Cella said in a 2015 interview with Daily Racing Form that he locked himself in the library at his home so he could watch the Belmont Stakes without distraction on that storied Saturday in June.

“I thought it was spectacular,” he said. “The horse proved something special, running into history. I must have gotten 100 calls after the race.

“It’s fun to watch the horses mature. That’s what racing is all about, the 3-year-olds, to see where they’re going.”

Oaklawn boosted its 3-year-old program the following year, raising the purse of the Southwest from $300,000 to $500,000 and kicking the Rebel up from $750,000 to $900,000. Both are preps for the Arkansas Derby. Cella said in a 2016 interview with DRF that it was his intent to continue growing the program.

“We’re already looking ahead, and I wouldn’t be surprised in the next couple of years if we raised the [Arkansas] Derby – if our program continues to grow as it is,” Cella said. “It is a little early to be projecting that at the moment, but I can see where $1 million won’t mean as much as it does now, and we want to be in the front rather than come from behind. We want to set the pace.”

Cella’s contributions to the sport – in which he was a breeder as well as an owner who raced 1995 Breeders’ Cup Turf hero Northern Spur – extended to his creation of the Racing Festival of the South, a grouping of major stakes over the final week of each Oaklawn meet that he debuted in 1974. One of the premier races during the Festival is the Apple Blossom, which has been won by a slew of outstanding distaffers, including Zenyatta.

“When you look back and say, ‘When did Oaklawn turn the corner and make a statement?’, it was clearly Smarty Jones, and then the two additional exclamation points were American Pharoah and Zenyatta,” said Jackson.

“This is a very sad day for Oaklawn and racing, but it was anticipated. Mr. Cella had been struggling, and if there’s good news, it’s that the Cella family is prepared and in place to carry on the Cella tradition of 113 years. John and Lou are the next generation of Cellas who will carry the Oaklawn banner into the future. It’s how Charles wanted it.”

A memorial Mass for Cella will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday at the Church of the Annunziata in St. Louis, according to the funeral home Lupton Chapel. The burial will be private. The church is located at 9305 Clayton Road.

Cella is survived by sons John and Louis, daughter Harriet, and eight grandchildren.