REX NELSON: The Cella way

I fell in love with thoroughbred racing at a young age. By my freshman yr in college or university, I was employing my position as sports activities editor of the each day newspaper in Arkadelphia as an excuse to generate to Sizzling Springs every day for the duration of the Oaklawn race meet up with. In 1981, I lined the Kentucky Derby for the initially time. I have been to 8 of individuals spectacles.

In 1982, at age 22, I lined every single working day of the race satisfy for the Arkansas Democrat. The activity of kings has been portion of my everyday living for decades. A single of the pleasures of currently being an Oaklawn typical was finding to know the late Charles J. Cella, the track’s owner. Newspaper writers are attracted to vibrant figures, and they didn’t come a lot additional colorful than the gentleman associates referred to merely as CJC.

I usually observed Cella’s sons, Louis and John, with him at big races. I questioned if they loved the sport as substantially as their father did. What would develop into of Oaklawn the moment CJC was no for a longer time all over?

We have our reply, and the information could not be improved for the state’s tourism sector. In December 2017, Charles Cella died. Louis was named president of Oaklawn. John was named president of the family’s Southern Genuine Estate & Economical Co. in St. Louis.

Louis, it turns out, not only loves racing as much as his father did he is also a visionary in a activity that has been unfortunately lacking these kinds of leaders in modern a long time.

“It’s certainly an honor to adhere to in the footsteps of my father and grandfather,” Louis claimed when he took above at Oaklawn. “Racing has been component of the Cella relatives DNA for generations, and we’re dedicated to keeping Oaklawn one particular of the leading racetracks in the place.”

Previously in 2017, Louis experienced become the 3rd era of his household to provide on the Thoroughbred Racing Associations of North The us board. His grandfather, John G. Cella, was president in 1959-60. CJC was president in 1975-76.

The regard for the Cella spouse and children that exists during the thoroughbred earth was apparent when marketplace leader Ted Bassett (a Keeneland and Breeders’ Cup director) mentioned: “The appointment of Louis Cella as president of Oaklawn Jockey Club will be welcome information throughout the racing market as it carries on the legendary involvement of the Cella family. For in excess of a century, 4 generations of this relatives have devoted by themselves to preserving the highest and conventional expectations of racing, guaranteeing public have faith in and the effectively-getting of the horse.

“For most of his existence, Louis has been actively included in each individual element of racing, and with this experience and the Cella family’s motivation to excellence, this proceeds the achievement of Oaklawn Park for many years to come.”

Louis’ great-grandfather, Louis A. Cella, was as vibrant as CJC. In 1896, he helped start off the Cella, Adler and Tilles financial investment syndicate. Regarded as CAT, it shortly dominated racing in this section of the country. CAT as soon as experienced a controlling curiosity in 25 tracks. Its Western Turf Affiliation gave CAT regulate around every thing from jockeys to bookmakers.

Louis A. Cella, the son of lousy Italian immigrants, made tens of millions of bucks, not only in racing but also in theaters, real estate, stocks and commodities. He ultimately would own 5 large business office buildings, 10 theaters, various motels and several brokerages.

It was unavoidable that the Cella spouse and children would discover its way from St. Louis to Incredibly hot Springs. The Spa City has normally been recognized as significantly for gambling as thermal waters. Thoroughbred races were being getting run at Sportsman’s Park on the southeastern edge of Hot Springs by the early 1890s. Essex Park was designed in 1904. That similar year, a group of investors formed Oaklawn Jockey Club.

“The name Oaklawn arrived from the rural local community in which the keep track of was created, which in flip took its title from what Peter LaPatourel, an early settler, known as his property, about which a stand of historical oaks stood,” Michael Hodge writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Oaklawn Park opened Feb. 15, 1905, and prevailed as the lone remaining racing location by 1907.

“The initial location reportedly value $500,000 and could seat 1,500 spectators. It provided improvements these types of as a glass-enclosed grandstand and steam warmth–between the very first racetracks in the state with both.”

In 1907, the Arkansas Legislature accepted a monthly bill that compelled Oaklawn’s closure at the conclude of the time. The keep track of would stay shut to racing for a long time, although the infield was the internet site of the Arkansas Point out Reasonable from 1906-14. By 1914, Louis A. Cella and his brother Charles had whole possession.

“Fires in 1913 prompted a downturn in tourism, fueled by rumors that the city could not accommodate company as a consequence of the destruction,” Hodge writes. “The persistence of these rumors encouraged town leaders to uncover a way to draw travelers again to the metropolis. In 1916, the Very hot Springs Men’s Business enterprise League reopened Oaklawn by environment a short racing timetable starting March 11 underneath the guise of a nonprofit civic company. Parimutuel betting was not allowed, but this didn’t preclude unofficial wagering.

“The 30-working day year was a success and led to the reopening of the two Oaklawn and Essex the pursuing yr, with designs for the two tracks to break up a full period. The newly refurbished Essex burned the working day soon after its grand reopening in 1917, thus moving the entire period to Oaklawn and marking the end of racing at Essex.”

Charles J. Cella turned keep track of president in 1968 next the dying of his father, John. In 2005, Oaklawn and the Cella family had been awarded the Eclipse Award of Advantage, the most prestigious award in racing. The award was given in recognition of boosts in attendance and wagering at the monitor all through the past 5 yrs, a period when racing was in drop somewhere else.

In November 2018, Arkansas voters authorised on line casino gambling at four areas, which includes Oaklawn. Louis Cella wasted no time asserting programs for a $100 million hotel and celebration center connected to the track. With the resort, its restaurant and spa now open up, it’s obvious the Cella loved ones used much far more than $100 million on the upscale facility.

Louis and his wife Rochelle, who was raised at England in Lonoke County, individually selected household furniture and decorations for the deluxe complex, which maintains a racing theme. It sets Oaklawn aside from other thoroughbred services across the region.

“By the whole facility, racing is in some way, condition or type concerned in the layout,” states Oaklawn normal manager Wayne Smith. “What we want people today to acknowledge is we are a racetrack first, and then we’re a hotel and on line casino.”

Louis Cella hasn’t been afraid to make main alterations. A race fulfill that the moment ended on Arkansas Derby Day in April now operates a few months later on through Kentucky Derby Working day on the very first Saturday in Might.

Very last thirty day period, Oaklawn officials declared that the following race satisfy will begin Dec. 3 fairly than in late January. That will allow races for 2-year-previous horses (Jan. 1 is regarded as the birthday for all thoroughbreds).

“This provides a entire new era of 2-yr-outdated racing, which we stopped 50 several years back,” Louis suggests.

Cella was named Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Sportsman of the Year very last calendar year for his efforts to continue to keep racing heading all through the pandemic. He even rescheduled the 2020 Arkansas Derby to the initial Saturday in Might following it was introduced that Churchill Downs would postpone the Kentucky Derby right until drop. The 2020 Arkansas Derby drew a significant countrywide television viewers of sports-starved supporters.

“In racing, we have an obligation,” Louis advised this newspaper. “It is really not like a retail store. You ship your staff members household and excellent luck and let’s communicate up coming week. We have 500 people today in the backstretch. We have 1,500 horses that have to be fed and cared for. We have our possess staff, and at that time, we are ramped up to 1,000 men and women. We are unable to just flip the lights off and say go residence. It is really not correct, and we are unable to do it.”

Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.