Oaklawn Park owner Charlie Cella said the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) triumph by the unbeaten Smarty Jones "was good for racing." Cella is right, of course, but he could have added that it was also good for the Hot Springs, Ark., track that celebrated its 100th anniversary this year by doubling the purse of the Arkansas Derby (gr. II) to $1 million and offering a $5 million bonus to any horse sweeping the Rebel Stakes, Arkansas Derby, and Kentucky Derby. Smarty Jones did just that, giving Oaklawn Park some serious bragging rights.
Roy and Patricia Chapman, who bred and own the Elusive Quality
colt, were the beneficiaries of the richest prize in racing history, $5,854,800, which includes the winner's share of the Derby purse. Now they're in line for another $5 million from Visa if Smarty Jones wins the Preakness (gr. I) and Belmont Stakes (gr. I), the final two legs of the Visa Triple Crown Challenge.
The victory, orchestrated by a modest racing and breeding operation in Pennsylvania, feeds the dreams of thousands of owners and breeders who cannot compete with racing's elite for high-priced yearlings or broodmares. The Derby winner was toasted at his home base at Philadelphia Park and in Hot Springs, but also by blue-collar breeders and small-scale owners throughout the country. It was a feel-good win shared by the entire industry.
"It was a marvelous way to close out our 100th season," said Cella, who devised the bonus scheme himself after meeting with Oaklawn Park management last year to plan for the centennial. "We kicked around a lot of ideas, but I didn't really like any of them."
Cella recalled that his grandfather, Charles Cella, and great-uncle, Louis Cella, two of the founders of Oaklawn Park, funded a $50,000 purse for a race run in honor of the World's Fair when it came to St. Louis 100 years ago. The 1904 World's Fair Handicap, which instantly became one of the world's richest races, was contested at the Fairgrounds in St. Louis, the Cella family's hometown. Colonial Girl upset Hermis for owner Otto Stifel in the race, but the big purse had no lingering effect on the sport. Fairgrounds and other St. Louis tracks closed down the next year under pressure from anti-gambling forces.
Cella did some quick math, multiplying his grandfather and great-uncle's $50,000 purse times the 100 years that have elapsed since 1904.
After announcing the bonus last October, Cella called on the Lavin family, old friends of his in Goshen, Ky., to have their Lavin Insurance Services insure half the bonus. But Cella decided to roll the dice on the other $2.5 million. After Smarty Jones won the Rebel and Arkansas Derby, however, Cella made another call to the Lavins hoping to insure the other half. Obviously, the premium for the second $2.5 million would be higher, now that Smarty Jones was just one race away from winning the bonus and one of the leading contenders in the Run for the Roses. Kevin Lavin, who said the policy was divided among five different insurance companies, said the deal closed about a week before the Kentucky Derby. He would not divulge the cost of either premium.
Cella, who was on hand at Churchill Downs for Smarty Jones' victory, was among those backing the Chapmans' colt at the betting windows. How much of the insurance premiums did he cover with those wagers? "I'm not saying," he said, "but I'll tell you what. I'll bet 95% of the people down in Arkansas were betting on Smarty Jones, too. We had a packed house."
The Chapmans are "really neat people," Cella said, but he didn't let that stop him from having some fun with them. "I said they'd get a check for $2 million right away," he said. "But the other $3 million is going to be paid out over the next 50 years."
Let's hope Oaklawn is still around then, celebrating its 150th anniversary. That would be good for racing, too. E-Mail Ray Paulick