Racing lost one of its most colorful characters this week with the passing of Charles Cella, the longtime president and chairman of Oaklawn Park, another piece of the game’s great quilt left with a big void.
Cella, 81, died after a battle with Parkinson’s disease at his home in St. Louis, Missouri, leaving behind a great legacy at his family’s beloved track Hot Springs, Arkansas. A racing man in the truest sense of the phrase, Cella bred, owned, bought, sold and celebrated good horses. He could spin a good story, after, during and perhaps before a good cocktail.
Many in the game have a “classic Cella” story, often involving much of the above and always entertaining.
Contacted more than four years ago after his Cyber Secret scored a popular and mild upset in the Grade 1 Oaklawn Handicap for the late Lynn Whiting and Cella, the colt’s owner conceded to “still being on Cloud 9” a good week after the race. Cella, whose family founded Oaklawn more than 100 years before, was thrilled for the horse and even more thrilled for his trainer.
“This game is really about people and I was so thrilled for Whiting, who I’ve known for half a century,” Cella said that day in April 2013. “He’s never had horses for me but I knew his father, knew him, and we decided to put a partnership together, together.
“We’re getting long in the shadow and it was a partnership in paradise. He doesn’t want a barnful of horses and I can’t afford a lot of them. So we were focusing on quality. Substance over style. I think that’s Cyber Secret. He looks like he’s a real racehorse.”
Cella was as excited that day about Cyber Secret as he was about the success of the 2013 Oaklawn meeting, which saw a good representation go on to the Kentucky Derby.
Cella, who campaigned champion and Breeders’ Cup Turf winner Northern Spur, never won the Derby like Whiting did in 1992 with Lil E. Tee. That didn’t bother him a bit. He respected the race and shared his own personal history with the opening jewel of the Triple Crown, but it wasn’t something that kept him up at night.
“We got (Cyber Secret) to be a potential Derby horse,” Cella said. “The Kentucky Derby, that’s the race, but one of my philosophies, and anybody in this business would like to win the Derby, but there’s more to horse racing than the Kentucky Derby. I’ve always gotten my kicks out of watching my own horses run and compete. I’m not what you’d call a classic breeder.”
Cella later conceded he couldn’t remember the last time he missed a Derby, which is conveniently run three weeks after the Oaklawn meet wraps for the year.
“The first Derby I saw I was AWOL from college,” he said. “Each student was entitled to five days off, I ate up all my days at once. I spent mine in Kentucky. When I got back my economics professor said, ‘and here we are, Cella’s back. He’s been spending time in the state that leads in sin – first in Bourbon, first in horse racing and first in tobacco.”
Cella took over operation of Oaklawn in 1968 and is widely credited with raising the track’s profile, particularly its 3-year-old stakes that lead up to the Arkansas Derby. He raised the purse of the Arkansas Derby to $1 million in 2004 to coincide with the track’s 100-year anniversary and offered a $5 million bonus to the horse who could sweep the Rebel Stakes, Arkansas Derby and Kentucky Derby.
Smarty Jones pulled off the feat, taking home the bonus, and Cella didn’t miss a beat.
Cella said watching Smarty Jones win the Kentucky Derby was the “greatest sports moment I have ever witnessed” and “I wanted that horse to win as much as anybody. … He has become a true Arkansas sports hero and not state appreciates its sports heroes with greater affection than Arkansas.”
Cella later presented by the $5 million bonus check to owners Roy and Patricia Chapman at Philadelphia Park and the following January he and his family were honored with the Eclipse Award of Merit.
A visitor to Saratoga Springs during the summer race meeting, often for The Jockey Club Round Table Conference or other gatherings of racing brass, Cella made his first trip to upstate New York shortly after taking over at Oaklawn. Listening to him recall that trip, and other topics related to Saratoga are again, classic Cella.
“It was unbelievable,” Cella said of the first trip. “My dad died in 1968 and I took over Oaklawn Park upon his death. My first trip to Saratoga was 1969. Hell, I got all dressed up. I had my church suit on. I met some people in the Trustees Room and I was only jackass with a necktie on. I’ve never been so embarrassed in my whole life. I’ve been there many, many, many times since that first time.”
Cella called Saratoga the “center of racing in the world in my judgment.”
“Usually when I’m there there are so many meetings I need to attend, but I’ll usually always get out to see the feature,” he said. “I use that time to stay in contact with all my buddies up and down the Eastern Seaboard. I’ve been in this game a long time now. You develop relationships and it’s an opportunity to visit and to see everyone.”
Before the short chat ended and Cella said goodbye, he offered a few more bits of advice for anyone looking to make a trip to Saratoga.
“I’ll go to any of the restaurants up there, as long as they serve hand melon,” he said. “I’ll tell you, everybody ought to go to Saratoga at least once in their life.”