Oaklawn reached the pinnacle in 1983, averaging 23,272 in attendance and $3,013,230 in handle. The figures are staggering since Hot Springs, a sleepy town nestled in the Ouachita Mountains, has a population of roughly 35,000.
But on-track business then began to erode as oil prices fell and competition heated up from tracks in Oklahoma and Texas and later casinos in Mississippi and Louisiana.
A former nationally ranked squash player, Cella fought back, first through off-season simulcasting in 1990, primarily taking entire cards from Arlington Park.
The simulcast of races from Arlington to Oaklawn marked the first time two of the country's major racetracks had commingled wagering pools across state lines.
Oaklawn is now open almost year-round for simulcasting. Although two attempts to bring casino-style gambling to the track failed during the 1990s, Oaklawn unearthed a profitable alternative with Instant Racing, a slick electronic pari-mutuel game that allows fans to bet on historical, or previously run races. Instant Racing debuted at Oaklawn in 2000 and has become so popular that a room on the first floor of the grandstand housing 50 terminals has been expanded to accommodate 150 this year.
Average daily handle on Instant Racing during last year's live season was $229,189, an increase of 89% from 2002, and revenue earmarked for purses has helped Oaklawn maintain a competitive level.
Oaklawn's average daily on-track attendance and handle figures last year, 11,938 and $990,987, respectively, were about on par with 2002.
"I tell you this game is changing so rapidly, I am reluctant to even think about what's going to happen 10 years from now," said Cella, president of Southern Real Estate and Financial Co. in St. Louis. "If you would have told me whenever we started simulcasting (1989) that that was a doable thing, and here we are almost 70% of our business is simulcasting today--and that's not unusual, by the way, on the national picture--I would have questioned the quality of water that you drink. But so be it.
"Of course, the other thing that's been really a godsend is Instant Racing. We would be dead in the water without it."
Cella's endorsement of Instant Racing is a radical departure from his earlier posture toward alternate styles of wagering. Noted for being fiercely independent--Oaklawn has been in and out of the Thoroughbred Racing Associations and National Thoroughbred Racing Association--and a staunch traditionalist, Cella didn't even offer exotic wagering at Oaklawn until the late 1980s.
"I think I've probably gotten more mellow over the years," said Cella, TRA president in 1975-76. "One of the worst things in my life is I'm a Virgo and I've always been very picky. But I think I've mellowed a little bit."
Still, Louis Cella said his father's competitive fires are running hot these days because of the significance of the 2004 season, highlighted by his $5-million 3-year-old challenge.
"He is really pumped," Cella said. "I mean more so than in the last 15 years that I've been really involved with the company. He's got a skip in his step, so to speak. He really is excited."