He is a combination of P.T. Barnum, Perle Mesta and Frank Sinatra—an innovative promoter, unmatched host and fiercely independent man. He rules over one of the last family-owned racetracks on the American landscape. He is Charles Cella, the longtime president of Oaklawn Park, and if anyone is going to lure Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta into the same starting gate, it's him.
Cella announced plans to increase the purse of the April 3 Apple Blossom to $5 million if the two champions show up. He didn't need to go out and find a corporate sponsor, didn't hire a slew of consultants, didn't seek approval from the bean counters or a board of directors.
He did it his way.
That's how Cella has been running Oaklawn Park since taking over the Hot Springs, Ark., racetrack upon the death of his father in 1968. There have been hard times and good times. The venerable track, founded in 1905, has taken some lumps, but through perseverance and innovation has managed to survive and even thrive at times. That's more than we can say about a lot of racetracks these days.
“I think he has been great for the sport,” said longtime Keeneland executive Ted Bassett, one of Cella's closest friends. “He's put the best interests of Oaklawn and the sport above his self interests. Always. And he marches to his own drum, regardless of the pressures or the cacophony from the outside.
“He is at heart an impresario. He loves to think and to create events. He is a master at that.”
Long before the Breeders' Cup championships, Arlington Park's International Festival of Racing, the Maryland Million, or Keeneland's Fall Stars Weekend, there was the Racing Festival of the South. Created in 1974, the week-long festival packs a bundle of top-class stakes races onto the end of the annual winter/spring meeting, culminating with the closing-day Arkansas Derby, which has attracted crowds in excess of 70,000.
For years, racing-starved fans from Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and other states in the region swamped Hot Springs. But then competition sprang up with shiny new tracks like Louisiana Downs, Remington Park and Lone Star Park, and later came casino boats in Mississippi and slot parlors in Louisiana and Oklahoma. Oaklawn Park no longer was the only game in town.
Cella and his management team launched the first full-card simulcasting parlor of any track in the country. It wasn't enough to keep pace. They tried to get a casino at Oaklawn, but realized it was a longshot at best. So, working with Ted Mudge at tote provider AmTote, Oaklawn came up with a pari-mutuel based electronic game called Instant Racing. It's been the track's salvation since the first machines were installed 10 years ago.
In 2004, Cella wanted to do something special to recognize Oaklawn Park's 100th anniversary, and created a $5-million “centennial bonus” for any 3-year-old that managed to sweep the Rebel Stakes, Arkansas Derby and Kentucky Derby. The triple had only been accomplished once before, by Sunny's Halo, in 1983, but Smarty Jones stepped up and swept the series, and Cella happily handed over $5 million to Smarty's owners, Pat and Roy Chapman. It was the richest payday in American racing history. A $5-million Apple Blossom would be the richest filly and mare race in history.
“It's a genius idea,” Bassett said of the Apple Blossom purse boost. “Even if they don't show, he's gotten a million dollars worth of publicity.”
I wouldn't bet against it happening—not yet, even though the statement from Jess Jackson, the owner of Rachel Alexandra, was a bit non-committal and the 2009 Horse of the Year has a lot more training to do to get back into racing shape.
“He has the courage to take the chance,” Bassett said of Cella, “the courage of his convictions. What other racetrack would have the courage, foresight and will to propose this? If they show, he will show.”
And if they show, you can be certain Cella will throw one helluva party to celebrate the event. “He is the male Perle Mesta,” Bassett said, a reference to the legendary Washington, D.C., “hostess with the mostest” from a half-century ago. “He loves to throw a party. He's a modern P.T. Barnum.”
But Cella is a lot more than Good Time Charlie. In an era of corporate ownership of racetracks, where heads of top management roll over with the frequency of Pick Threes and Daily Doubles, Oaklawn Park has been an island of stability, not unlike the other remaining family-owned tracks in America: the Carey family's Hawthorne in Chicago and Stella Thayer's Tampa Bay Downs in Florida.
“Continuity and stability have been hallmarks of Oaklawn Park,” said Bassett. “They know where they are, they know when they are going to open. He never quakes to outside pressures. Charlie was the lyricist of Sinatra's 'doing in my way.'”
Copyright © 2010, The Paulick Report
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