Charles Cella loved nothing more than getting people out to Oaklawn Park.
The longtime president and chairman of the board of the Oaklawn Jockey Club died Dec. 6 of complications from Parkinson's disease. According to his sons John and Louis Cella, Cella was at home in St. Louis, Mo., surrounded by family. He was 81.
Whether it be on Arkansas Derby (G1) day to see a future Triple Crown winner, making social connections and watching top horses during the Racing Festival of the South, or enjoying some gambling on past races through the Cella family's Instant Racing games, Charles Cella enjoyed seeing a packed house.
Cella was a master of promotions that could bring people out to the track. To celebrate Oaklawn's 100th anniversary, Cella offered a $5 million bonus to any horse who could sweep Oaklawn's Rebel Stakes (then a listed stakes) and Arkansas Derby (then G2), and then win the Kentucky Derby (G1). Smarty Jones did just that in 2004 to secure the massive bonus check, as the Someday Farm homebred then rolled to a win in the Preakness Stakes (G1) before just missing a Triple Crown sweep, finishing second to Birdstone in the Belmont Stakes (G1).
"The name of the game in racing is to reward our steadfast patrons with good theater," Cella told BloodHorse that year. "I just thought trying to lure the best 3-year-olds to Oaklawn for our 100th year would be a wonderful thing. When you do something like that, I think the overall quality of your racing is magnified."
The $5 million bonus continued to get attention for Oaklawn as Smarty Jones pursued his Triple Crown. The attention likely contributed to the development of the Arkansas classic prep races. As of 2017 the Rebel Stakes is a grade 2 race with a $900,000 purse and the Arkansas Derby is a grade 1 with a million-dollar purse.
In 1968 the Arkansas Derby offered a purse of $58,700. Since 2004 the classic prep has offered a $1 million purse and for the past seven years it has carried grade 1 status. In 2015 it served as the final classic prep for Triple Crown winner American Pharoah .
In 1968 Cella took the reins of Oaklawn, which has been owned by his family through its entire history. Under his direction, the Hot Springs, Ark., track developed one of the largest and most respected racing meets in America. Oaklawn is credited with numerous innovations in the sport including the Racing Festival of the South, full-card interstate simulcasting, and Instant Racing, which has helped increase purses at Oaklawn's live meeting to nearly $500,000 a day in 2017.
In 2010 Cella and Oaklawn made headlines again when they offered a $5 million purse if 2009 Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta, who earned Horse of the Year honors that season, would meet in the Apple Blossom Handicap (G1). Although that race didn't come together when Rachel Alexandra's co-owner Jess Jackson backed out after his filly lost a race at Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots, it pointed to Cella's commitment to putting on a show.
In 2010 Cella told BloodHorse he never took anything for granted in running Oaklawn, and wanted customers who came out to the track to have a great experience.
"It's a privilege," Cella said. "It's not a right or an entitlement. One of the biggest factors to remember is the relationship between the betting clerk and the patron. That is part of history and needs to be preserved. I don't care how long it takes for a transaction; I want our clerks to communicate with the patron. That's a big part of the spirit of the place."
In a statement released Wednesday, the Cella family recalled the joy Charles found in racing and the pride he took in seeing it develop into a top track.
"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. 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."
Steve Arrison, on behalf of the Hot Springs Advertising and Promotion Commission, in a release said Cella's love for Oaklawn helped create the top tourism destination in the state.
"Hot Springs' tourism industry and all our citizens are forever indebted to Mr. Charles J. Cella, chairman of Oaklawn, for his vision and willingness to sacrifice immediate gain in order to create Arkansas's greatest tourism destination and for his often-unrecognized personal generosity in creating and supporting some of Hot Springs' most important economic development activities and institutions," Arrison said. "We see the fruits of his efforts every day throughout our city. A man of Mr. Cella's qualities comes along maybe once in a lifetime, and all of us in Hot Springs will miss him greatly."
Cella also owned and raced numerous notable Thoroughbreds, including 1995 Breeders' Cup Turf (G1T) winner Northern Spur, who that year earned the Eclipse Award as champion grass horse.
"It was the greatest moment in my life in racing," Cella told BloodHorse. "It was so darn exciting when Northern Spur struck the sixteenth pole that I almost went into a rigid coma. Penny Tweedy was sitting in front of me. I stumbled and fell into her lap, which caused some concern with the gendarmes. The party that night lasted until three in the morning."
In addition to Oaklawn, Cella was president of Southwestern Enterprises and Southern Real Estate and Financial Company.
Survivors include his two sons and a daughter, Harriet Marshall, and eight grandchildren.
Services will be held Dec. 9 at 11:00 a.m. at the Annunziata Catholic Church in St. Louis. The church is located at 9305 Clayton Road, St. Louis, MO 63124.