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Charles J. Cella, Longtime Oaklawn Chairman, Dies at 81

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Charles J. Cella, the longtime president and chairman of the board of the Oaklawn Jockey Club in Hot Springs, has died of complications from Parkinson’s disease, the racetrack said Wednesday. He was 81.

Cella died Wednesday morning at his home in St. Louis, surrounded by family, according to an Oaklawn news release.

Cella took over Oaklawn from his father, John Cella, in 1968. John Cella had been given control of Oaklawn in 1940 after his father, Charles Cella, died at the age of 65.

In addition to Oaklawn, Charles Cella was president of Southwestern Enterprises Inc. and Southern Real Estate & Financial Co. He also owned and raced notable thoroughbreds, including 1995 Breeders’ Cup Turf champion Northern Spur. 

“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,” the Cella family said in a news release. “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.”

Survivors include his two sons, John and Louis Cella; a daughter, Harriet Marshall; and eight grandchildren. Funeral arrangements are pending.

Steve Arrison, CEO of Visit Hot Springs, said Hot Springs’ tourism industry and its citizens are indebted to Cella.

“We see the fruits of his efforts every day throughout our city,” Arrison said. “A man of Mr. Cella’s qualities comes along maybe once in a lifetime, and all of us in Hot Springs will miss him greatly.”

In 2003, Oaklawn trainer Robert Holthus described Charles Cella, who had worked in Oaklawn’s backstretch as a teenager, as “probably a horseman first and a track owner second.” 

“His father made him come up through the ranks,” Holthus told Arkansas Business for a cover story on Oaklawn’s 100th anniversary.

Charles took over in 1968, and by 1973 Oaklawn “was undoubtedly the phenomenon of the racing industry,” said a 1985 Backstretch magazine article. While most racetracks were losing fans and revenue, Cella announced expansion plans for Oaklawn.

The 1974 season opened with a new five-level, glass-enclosed addition to the north end of the grandstand. And between 1978 and 1987, Oaklawn saw more than 20,000 fans each racing day, betting anywhere from $2.3 million to more than $3 million a day. By 1984, fans bet more than $3 million every day of the racing season. For the 1984 season, the state received a then-record $10.78 million from taxes on racing.

Under Cella’s leadership, Oaklawn introduced the Racing Festival of the South, full-card interstate simulcasting and Instant Racing. The park also weathered the rise of casino gambling in surrounding states, including Mississippi, and it led campaigns against multiple efforts to legalize casino gambling in Arkansas. At the same time, it put more resources into electronic games of skill at the park, which began in 2006.

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