Louis Cella, the owner and president of Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort, has been honored as the 2020 Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Sportsman of the Year for his leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic. When most of the rest of the country–including live sports–shut down in March, he was one of a handful of racetrack principals who were able to continue live racing and do it safely.
“In racing, we have an obligation,” Cella told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. “It's not like a retail store. You send your employees home and good luck and let's talk next week. We have 500 people in the backstretch. We've got 1,500 horses that have to be fed and cared for. We have our own employees, and at that time, we're ramped up to a thousand people. We can't just turn the lights off and say go home. It's not right, and we can't do it.”
Oaklawn managed to stay open with limited attendance through closing day on May 2, a novel idea at the time and a move that was embraced by horsemen and fans. Handle numbers soared with closing day–and two divisions of the GI Arkansas Derby–more than doubling wagering at any previous day in the track's history with $41 million.
The track's 2021 season will begin Jan. 22 with limited admission.