Meritorious Character

By James E. Bassett III
When one thinks of Charles J. Cella, a myriad of descriptions flash by. "Indescribable" comes easily to mind, overshadowed by "indomitable" or perhaps "indestructible," followed by "unpredictable" or almost surely "unpersuadable." But lest we overlook the obvious, certainly it would be "unforgettable."

While the president of Oaklawn Park may be many things to many people depending upon the hour of day or night, to me he is one of the most cherished, challenging, and intriguing friends one could have. It is known that Charles frequently listens to his own drumbeat, marching against a tidal wave of industry opinion. For years I have been the industry's designated whipping boy to fall upon my knees beseeching Charles to change his obstinate stance on a variety of creative industry initiatives, such as the Breeders' Cup, Equibase, and Graded Stakes. In each instance I prepared a volley of reasons, fired a salvo for effect, and watched in dismay as the target stood defiant and stubbornly resilient. However, time works miracles, and usually over an extended period logic slowly prevailed. In fairness, however, the single most compelling characteristic of CJC is when the issue is vital and the chips are down--he is there.

We were both all smiles when Northern Spur won the 1995 Breeders' Cup Turf (gr. IT)--together in the winner's circle, me the president of Breeders' Cup to present the trophy to Charles, the winning owner.

Through the years my mounting failures of persuasion led me to contemplate some means of retribution, which coupled with a mischievous and misguided sense of humor led to a series of fabricated phone calls of doctored and fractured dialect to Charles. While he is historically resistive to suggestions from others, he is abnormally susceptible to the most illogical scams, which tend to disrupt his personal modus operandi.

My personal favorite amongst the vignettes, which inflicted the severest Cella angst, was "the call from the frustrated Argentinean Customs official" demanding payment in pesos to cover Cella's check, which had bounced for payment of a horse. "NO PAY--NO FOOD NO WATER FOR ZEE HORSE SENOR" sent CJC chasing down trainer Ron McAnally for the explanation.

One other which generated even greater anguish was "the call from a Hot Springs Doc Lock" that had received a prepaid order from a Mrs. Marylou to install a double duty lock on her bedroom door in the Cella house known as "The Eighth Pole House."

Some of his legendary parties and escapades are too awesome to believe. Who could forget the fabulous gala at Bristol in Paris after the Arc with entertainers flown in from around the world, or the black-tie bash at "21" featuring an ensemble from Cole Porter, and finally daughter Harriet's debut in St. Louis when he recreated Sardi's complete with wall caricatures in an old theater. The evening included a special tap-dance routine choreographed and performed by Cella and his sons. Or what of the Commodore's daring adventure of sailing across the Atlantic, with an amateur crew, which challenged human sanity. One could write a book, but it would have to be written by Ripley.

Cella might be infamous for eccentricities, but he should be recognized for his philanthropy and vision.

Congratulations to the Cella family and Oaklawn for receiving the well-deserved 2004 Eclipse Award of Merit. Throughout the years enormous contributions have been made to improve the quality and public perception of racing. The Racing Festival of the South, the implementation of Racinos, the expanded public facilities, and the $5-million Smarty Jones bonanza that ignited an outporing of public interest. Finally, few are aware of the Cella family's commitment to underwrite the Russell-Rice Scholarship at Vanderbilt University to encourage young writers to become Turf journalists.

So a final salute and request to my old friend and convivial associate for one more memorable bash before we both make The Final Turn.

JAMES E. "TED" BASSETT III is chairman emeritus of the Keeneland Association and '95 Eclipse Award of Merit winner.

Most Popular Stories