Thanks, Mr. Cella

Charles Cella has done it again.

The owner of Oaklawn Park knows how to do things in a big way while earning media exposure in the process. As I’m sure you’ve heard, Cella announced today that Oaklawn Park will increase the purse of the Apple Blossom on April 3 from $500,000 to $5 million if both Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta will show up to race.

If it happens, it will bring one of the most anticipated races in years to Hot Springs. It also will be the largest purse for a filly and mare race in the history of North American thoroughbred racing. National media attention will be focused on Arkansas for days leading up to the race.

Cella, of course, is the man who invented the Racing Festival of the South back in 1974. The festival includes a stakes race a day on the final seven days of racing each year, ending with the Arkansas Derby.

Today’s announcement reminded me of the one Cella made in 2004 when he stated that any horse that could sweep the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn, the Arkansas Derby and the Kentucky Derby would win a bonus of $5 million in celebration of Oaklawn’s centennial year.

Along came Smarty Jones.

“In 1904, my grandfather had given $50,000 to the winner of a handicap in honor of the St. Louis World’s Fair,” Cella once told me. “I multiplied $50,000 by 100 and came up with $5 million. I didn’t realize at the time that the whole thing would play out like a Hollywood script. As it turned out, that money was the best investment I ever made. You could not have drawn it up any better. Due to all the publicity Smarty Jones received, other trainers began giving Oaklawn a closer look.”

Chad Garrison later wrote in the St. Louis Business Journal: “Charles Cella may be the only person in the world who could make a $5 million bet, lose the bet and feel good about it.”

After Smarty Jones won the Rebel Stakes and the Arkansas Derby, Cella began negotiating with his insurer, Lavin Insurance of Goshen, Ky. Cella had insured the first $2.5 million with Lavin. It was just two days prior to the Kentucky Derby before Lavin insured the remaining $2.5 million.

The $5.8 million Smarty Jones won at the Kentucky Derby was the most ever paid to a horse for one race. At Oaklawn, more than 7,000 people showed up that first Saturday in May just to watch the simulcast.

Insurance underwriters likely insured the first $2.5 million in 2004 based on the fact that only one horse (Sunny’s Halo in 1983) had won all three races since the Rebel began in 1961. With the chances of winning less than 1 in 40, a premium of less than 10 percent of the bonus probably was required. Smarty Jones went into the Kentucky Derby with 4-to-1 odds, meaning that the premium on the second $2.5 million likely was 25 percent or more.

Smarty Jones went on the win the Preakness, becoming the most famous 3-year-old in years and capturing the hearts of Americans who had never before followed racing.

A year later, Arkansas Derby winner Afleet Alex won the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes. Suddenly, the racing world was noticing that the previous two Arkansas Derby winners had captured four of six Triple Crown races.

The run of success continued in 2007 after Curlin won the Arkansas Derby. After finishing third in the Kentucky Derby, Curlin won the Preakness and finished second in the Belmont. He would go on to win the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park and the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Monmouth Park en route to being named the Eclipse Award Horse of the Year.

Now, we face the tantalizing prospect of Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra dueling at Oaklawn. Rachel Alexandra won the Eclipse Award for Horse of the Year as a 3-year-old filly. Zenyatta was the runner-up as a 5-year-old mare. Oaklawn is neutral territory between Rachel Alexandra’s winter base in New Orleans and Zenyatta’s base in California. Owner Jess Jackson will not run Rachel Alexandra on a synthetic surface. But he will run on Oaklawn’s dirt track. Santa Anita has a synthetic track, which is why Rachel Alexandra did not take on Zenyatta in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita last October.

Both horses have experienced success at Oaklawn. Zenyatta had her first Grade 1 stakes victory in the Apple Blossom in 2008 in her only start outside of California that year. She is now undefeated in 14 races. Many thought last year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic would be the final race of her career. Fortunately, it was announced on Jan. 16 that she will race again.

Last year, Rachel Alexandra won the Martha Washington and the Fantasy Stakes at Oaklawn. She had a record victory in the Kentucky Oaks in Louisville the day before the Kentucky Derby and then became the first filly to win the Preakness in 85 years. Also last year, she won the Haskell and the Woodward.

Cella said at today’s news conference: “We have always pursued a goal of bringing the world’s best racing to Arkansas. That is what led us to create the Racing Festival of the South more than 30 years ago. We have been even more fortunate in recent years.”

He says Oaklawn has been “fortunate.” I believe you make your luck. Cella, his sons, general manager Eric Jackson and the others at Oaklawn are making big things happen in Hot Springs on a regular basis.

Cella, who was once a nationally ranked squash player, told me a couple of years ago: “In all sports, the satisfaction comes from knowing how hard you have worked and how well you have prepared. If you lose but are fully spent at the end, that’s OK. When you win, that’s lagniappe.”

I’m ready for some lagniappe on April 3.

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2 Responses to “Thanks, Mr. Cella”

  1. jf says:

    Rex, my dad turns 85 on April 3th, wouldn’t it be great to take him to the track and watch the girls run. Of course a steak after would top it off nicely.

  2. rexnelson says:

    It sounds like the perfect day to me. I just wish Coy’s had not burned down — Rex

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