December 6, 2017

RIP Charles Cella - Oracle of Oaklawn

Garland County lost its stalwart son today when the man who expertly maneuvered the reins of Oaklawn Park for five decades like Pat Day guiding Lil E. Tee on the first Saturday in May passed away at age 81.  Speaking of Lil E. Tee, it should be noted that Mr. Cella’s long-time trainer Lynn Whiting also passed away recently in April of 2017. Lynn provided Mr. Cella one of his biggest thrills in racing when their Cyber Secret won Oaklawn’s namesake handicap race in 2013.

During this holiday season each year, you are sure to see Frank Capra’s “It’s A Wonderful Life” on television a time or two. In the closing scene, newly returned war hero Harry Bailey raises a glass and says to the adorning crowd, “A toast to my big brother George, the richest man in town.” Well folks, Charles Cella is certainly the richest man in Hot Springs, Arkansas -- both figuratively and literally. But that wasn’t always the case. Mr. Cella was doling out an estimated million dollars or more per year from his hip pocket to cover the operational losses from Oaklawn Park throughout the early 1990s. Keep in mind this is the same decade that brought Arkansas racing fans the likes of Bayakoa, Unbridled, Best Pal,  Lil E. Tee and Pine Bluff, Paseana, Rockamundo (Borel - look it up), Best Pal, Cigar and Victory Gallop. When people ask why I’m such a huge racing fan, bettor, owner, breeder I should start by replying with the simple short answer…“Charles Cella.” 

Horse racing all across America was severely threatened by the proliferation of states authorizing riverboat or tribal casinos that were numerous in connecting states Mississippi, Louisiana and Oklahoma. In a July 1995 article by William Nack published in Sports Illustrated, Nack recounted the following conversation. “Racetracks and casinos cannot exist as rival entities,” Cella says. “It’s not a level playing field… I am not a casino guy. I have a passion for racing. I would never get into the casino business if it weren’t for racing. Casino gambling, if it augments purses, I’m all for it. That’s the only reason I’m interested in them. Casino to me is a bad word. But if we don’t get one, Oaklawn could very well go under.”

Well, after repeated failed election ballot attempts the Arkansas General Assembly in 1999 approved “games of skill” that began with an Oaklawn joint creation with AmTote known as Instant Racing. These were slot machine like video terminals providing a foundation of support for the live racing product that was the brainchild of long-time Oaklawn GM Eric Jackson (recently retired). After the success of 50 original machines placed at Oaklawn Park (and Southland Greyhound Park), Oaklawn was “off to the races” on a path to financial stability.  This renewed profitability would only strengthen in following years to a point where only Saratoga (as we say in Hot Springs, the “other” Spa) has higher daily purses for a meet that exceeds 40 race days.

Mr. Cella was a major business force in the St. Louis, MO area where he resided most of the year. He also was a nationally ranked squash player in his youth. But the essence of the man – his LEGACY – is that of Oaklawn Park. He also enjoyed the highest success as a horse owner with 1995 Breeders’ Cup Turf Champion Northern Spur. Mr. Cella campaigned 800K earner Crafty Shaw, aforementioned Cyber Secret and Grade 2 winner Dark Moondancer (GB).  I always found it ironic that his greatest race horse was a grass specialist since Oaklawn has never had (and likely never will have) a turf course. According to Equibase, Mr. Cella achieved 90 victories since 2000 with over $4.5 million in purse winnings. One interesting side note is that my most successful runner at Oaklawn Park over five years of ownership was Sammy’s Bandit. The Bandit was a half-brother to Mr. Cella’s Cyber Secret (Stomping dam) and reeled off multiple Oaklawn Park victories during the 2014 meet (thanks Lon Wiggins!) and gave us a thrill by winning the first race on Arkansas Derby day in front of 70,000 of my “closest friends.”

The Cella family statement read: "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.” As a regular railbird at my original “home track” of Oaklawn Park, Mr. Cella would often be seen waltzing through the ground level of the track apron surveying the crowd with his lanky frame, often with a cigar dangling. He may have shown up with large parties dressed to the nines and being escorted to the best tables in the Oaklawn Jockey Club. But by day’s end Charles would be seen on his own, savoring his moment just like Steve Asmussen does today or my Uncle Shell the plumber did ten years ago when he was alive. These special moments -- listening to the hooves on the track just feet away, the smell of draft beer and cheap cigars, the visual of young gals and guys flirting and having a blast, the sound of drunken drawl accents cursing Calvin Borel on the beaten chalk or cheering on Jon Court for booting home a 20-1 shot. THESE are the moments!  And even the richest man in town understood that. My condolences to sons Louis and John Cella and daughter Harriet Marshall, as well as to his extended Oaklawn family who may have known him as well as anyone.

Clarence Oddbody AS2 (aka, George’s Guardian Angel) left a note when he departed Bedford Falls. “Remember no man is a failure who has friends.” Shortly after, George’s daughter Zuzu recanted, “Everytime a bell rings an angel gets his wings.” Come Friday afternoon on January 12, 2018 at 2705 Central Avenue in Hot Springs, about twenty to twenty-five thousand of Mr. Cella’s closest friends will gather to celebrate an angel getting his wings when the gates are sprung and that starting bell bellows to kick off the 115th anniversary year of historic Oaklawn Park. And according to Terry Wallace, the sun is sure to be shining on that day. RIP Mr. Cella – the richest man in town.
Eric Kordsmeier
Dallas, TX