Charles Cella, Longtime Oaklawn President, Passes Away


Charles Cella | Oaklawn Park

Charles J. Cella, longtime president and chairman of the board of the Oaklawn Jockey Club in Hot Springs, Arkansas, has died of complications from Parkinson’s disease. According to his sons John and Louis Cella, Cella was at home in St. Louis, surrounded by family. He was 81.

Cella took over operations at Oaklawn in 1968 upon the passing of his father, John Cella, and under his direction, the track developed into a staple on the winter racing calendar. In addition to developing The Racing Festival of the South, which centers around the $1-million GI Arkansas Derby, other innovations at the Hot Springs oval during Cella’s tenure include full-card interstate simulcasting and the development of Instant Racing. In 2005, the Cella family was honored with Eclipse Award of Merit.

A statement from the Cella family read, “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.”

In recent years, Oaklawn purses have skyrocketed, largely as a result of funds derived from Instant Racing and casino gambling. The 3-year-old stakes program has in turn thrived, with high profile names such as Smarty Jones (Elusive Quality) and American Pharoah (Pioneerof the Nile) using Oaklawn as a gateway to success in the GI Kentucky Derby. Smarty Jones’s sweep of Oaklawn’s sophomore stakes and his subsequent victory on the first Saturday in May earned his connections a $5-million bonus offered by Cella to commemorate the track’s 100th anniversary season. Oaklawn also played host to two victories in the GI Apple Blossom H. by celebrated racemare Zenyatta (Street Cry {Ire}), while 2017 saw expected Horse of the Year Gun Runner (Candy Ride {Arg}) kick off his season in the GIII Razorback H.

In addition to his role at Oaklawn, Cella was President of Southwestern Enterprises, Inc. and Southern Real Estate and Financial Company. He also owned and raced numerous notable Thoroughbreds, including 1995 Breeders’ Cup Turf champion Northern Spur (Ire) (Sadler’s Wells), for whom a race at Oaklawn is named, as well as graded stakes winners Crafty Shaw (Crafty Prospector), Cyber Secret (Broken Vow) and Dark Moondancer (GB) (Anshan {GB}). Cella’s final starter, Unmoored (Midshipman) won an allowance race at Turfway Park Friday evening.

Cella is survived by his two sons and a daughter, Harriet Marshall, as well as eight grandchildren. Funeral arrangements are yet to be finalized.


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