Longtime horse racing figure Charles J. Cella dies at 81

Charles J. Cella, who helped turn Oaklawn Park into a major racing destination in the South as a third-generation president of the Arkansas track and a thoroughbred owner himself, died Wednesday. He was 81.

He died of complications from Parkinson’s disease at his home in St. Louis, his sons John and Louis Cella told Oaklawn Racing & Gaming.

Cella took over as president of Oaklawn Jockey Club in Hot Springs in 1968 upon the death of his father, John G. Cella. The younger Cella led the track to even greater success through such innovations as full-card interstate simulcasting and the Racing Festival of the South, which featured lucrative stakes races. In 2005, the Cella family and Oaklawn Park received the Eclipse Award of Merit for their contributions to U.S. racing.

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson called Cella ”one of the great American sportsmen.”

”During his tenure, he built the track into a world-class destination for thoroughbred racing,” Hutchinson said. ”Through his unique combination of vision for the future and respect for the sport’s traditions, Cella transformed the facility and left an indelible mark on the industry as a whole. He will be missed.”

Cella owned and raced numerous 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,” Cella’s family said in a statement. ”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.”

In 2010, Cella seized an opportunity to lure superstar female horses Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta to the track by promising a $5 million purse for the Apple Blossom Invitational if both showed up.

Rachel Alexandra did not, so the purse reverted to $500,000 in the race Zenyatta won for her 16th consecutive victory. Still, Cella came out ahead. Instead of costing him $5 million, he lost $172,753 because of minus win and place wagering pools. The rare negative win pool alone was $27,275.

”You can go certainly a generation without seeing the quality of these two horses,” Cella told The Associated Press that year. ”I’m disappointed for racing and the public. It would’ve been gangbusters.”

Besides Oaklawn, Cella was president of Southwestern Enterprises Inc. and Southern Real Estate and Financial Co., which owns commercial properties in St. Louis and St. Louis County, including the Market Place and Clayprice shopping centers in suburban Ladue. At one time, it owned Busch’s Grove restaurant, known for genteel dining in Ladue. Cella later opened Truffles restaurant in the same suburb.

Born Aug. 27, 1936, in St. Louis, Cella graduated from Washington and Lee University with a bachelor’s degree in political science. He was once a nationally ranked squash player.

Cella is survived by his two sons, daughter Harriet Marshall, and eight grandchildren.

Arrangements were pending.

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