Cella Determined to Preserve Bygone Era at Oaklawn Park

Article excerpt

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - Every February, Charles J. Cella becomes the world's only racetrack owner who sleeps a furlong from his finish line.

When Oaklawn Park opened its annual race meeting, Cella moved from his St. Louis home to an elegantly furnished trackside log cabin at the edge of the Oaklawn grandstand, directly across the track from the furlong pole.

He often entertains guests during the races, and his table is set with napkins that read, ``No Gimmicks, No Medication, No Rain.''

Cella's unusual residence is an appropriate symbol of Oaklawn, where his strong opinions and personality have long set the track's conservative tone.

The promises on those napkins, which he had printed several years ago, reflected his determination to preserve a bygone era in racing, when performance-enhancing drugs like Lasix were illegal and the only ``gimmick'' bet on the card was a daily double.

Cella continues to set out those napkins, but only as a reminder: the vagaries of the racing business can make a promise of purism as unreliable as a guarantee of sunny skies. For as Oaklawn's horses raced by Cella's cabin on a recent rainy afternoon, many were running on Lasix, and the fans in the grandstand a few yards away were rooting home exactas and Pick-Sixes.

``I feel like we're being dragged into the future against some of the principles that made Oaklawn great,'' he said. ``But the most important tradition is maintaining the quality of racing at Oaklawn.''

Cella never expected to see Lasix or the Pick-Six at Oaklawn, but he never expected to see attendance drop 23 percent and the betting handle fall 26 percent over the last five years.

Cella said the downturn was largely caused by a sagging regional economy, hit hard by reverses in oil and agriculture.

The other factor, which could increase in the years to come, is a familiar one to other track operators but an entirely new experience for Oaklawn: competition from racing in neighboring states.

Oaklawn first opened in 1906, but its business began to soar in 1968, when the city's illegal but flourishing casinos were closed down for good.

That began a decline for Hot Springs, whose elegant bathhouses and resorts soon fell into disrepair, but it meant a boom for Oaklawn, suddenly the only gamble in town.

Cella coincidentally took over Oaklawn's helm that year, after his father's death.

By 1983, daily purses had risen to become the highest anywhere outside New York or California, and top horses from around the country showed up for major stakes races like the Apple Blossom, the Fantasy and the Oaklawn Handicap.

The Arkansas Derby, once an oxymoron, became a key Triple Crown prep and has been won by such stars as Temperence Hill, Sunny's Halo, Althea, Tank's Prospect and Demons Begone.

Oaklawn had the region virtually to itself, since Louisiana was the only one of the six surrounding states that permitted parimutuel wagering.

Thousands of out-of-state fans willingly drove up to six hours for a crack at Oaklawn's betting windows.

They may not have to soon. Racing has already started in Oklahoma, and Texas, Missouri and Tennessee have also legalized parimutuel betting in the last five years.

No new tracks are expected to go up within 100 miles of Hot Springs and no one expects any of the nearby states to put on racing as rich as Oaklawn's. …