Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark., which celebrated 100 years of operation in 2004, and the Cella family, which has privately owned the track all that time, has been awarded the Eclipse Award of Merit, the National Thoroughbred Racing Association announced Jan. 6.
To celebrate the track's 100th birthday, track president Charles Cella announced the Oaklawn Centennial bonus of $5 million to any horse that could sweep the Rebel Stakes, Arkansas Derby (gr. I) and Kentucky Derby (gr. I).
As if on cue, Smarty Jones stepped up and won all three races. Cella presented the check to Smarty Jones' owners, Pat and Roy Chapman.
The Cellas' involvement in the sport goes back more than a century and also includes past ownership of tracks in Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, and elsewhere. In 1904, Louis and Charles Cella were part of a group that incorporated the Oaklawn Jockey Club, which oversaw construction of Oaklawn Park -- America's first track to have a glass-enclosed grandstand.
When Louis Cella died in 1918, ownership of Oaklawn passed to his brother Charles Cella. Following Charles Cella's death in 1940, ownership shifted to John G. Cella, who ran the track until his death in 1968, when current track president and chairman Charles J. Cella succeeded his father.
In 1974, Cella introduced the highly popular Racing Festival of the South, which features at least one stakes race a day for the final seven programs of the meeting -- climaxed by the Arkansas Derby.
In 1990, Oaklawn became the first North American racetrack to import full-card races across state lines for simulcasting purposes.
The current Oaklawn president also maintains a racing stable. His Northern Spur won the 1995 Eclipse Award as champion male turf horse after winning that year's Breeders' Cup Turf (gr. IT).
The Eclipse Award winners will be presented Jan. 24 at the Regent Beverly Wilshire in Beverly Hills, Calif.