Another season at Oaklawn Park is set to begin Friday. And, for once, there’s no chance that one or more of the first four days of the live meet (Friday through Monday) will fall victim to winter weather.
In past years, Oaklawn’s opening weekend in January often has been a magnet for ice, snow or at least temperatures so low that a frozen track was the result. It would have been a disaster had the meet been scheduled to start last weekend with the lowest temperatures in 14 years.
The weather gods have smiled this time. The only problem this year is going to be perhaps a little rain on Saturday.
Racing at Oaklawn began in February 1905. Hot Springs Mayor John Belding declared that first afternoon of racing a holiday, and almost 3,000 people turned out. The track closed after the 1907 meeting due to political problems with the state.
By 1916, racing had resumed, original owners Dan Strut and John Condon were dead and Louis Cella of St. Louis was the owner.
In 1918, Louis Cella died at age 51 in a St. Louis hospital following a stroke. His brother, Charles, and two partners would continue to operate Oaklawn and a number of other tracks. In October 1940, Charles Cella died in St. Louis at age 65. His son, John G., took over the track. John’s son, Charles J., was age 4 at the time.
Through almost three decades of track ownership, John Cella provided needed stability, developing strong relationships in the Arkansas business and political communities. He saw to it that Oaklawn was a charter member when the Thoroughbred Racing Association was formed in 1942. Spring racing was suspended under his watch in 1945 due to World War II, but he ensured that Oaklawn had a fall meeting that year to celebrate the war’s end. In the years after the war, purse distribution soared and attendance increased.
The Cella family’s investments in the entertainment business consisted of far more than thoroughbred tracks. At one time, the family owned 48 theaters.
“I frankly had more interest in the theater than in racing,” Charles Cella told me a couple of years ago during a visit in his office at Oaklawn. “Unfortunately, by the time I came of age, both racing and live theater were headed south as businesses. Television hurt live theater. And casino gambling hurt racing.”
Cella has been nothing if not innovative, though, since assuming ownership of the track in 1968 following the sudden death of his father from a stroke. Charles Cella was just 31 when he took over Southern Real Estate and Financial Co. and the other family enterprises.
William J. Smith, a prominent Little Rock attorney, had been one of John Cella’s best friends. Smith would advise Charles Cella, becoming almost like a second father to him. Smith, a Texarkana native, earlier had served as a key adviser to Govs. Homer Adkins, Ben Laney, Francis Cherry and Orval Faubus. Smith’s law parter, Little Rock attorney Herschel Friday, later would play the role of strategic adviser and political fixer for Charles Cella.
It’s now a rare thing to find a family-owned track. But Charles Cella hopes to continue the tradition at Oaklawn under the leadership of his sons, John and Louis.
Oaklawn somehow has survived the casino competition from neighboring states. It had been the last track in America to add exotic forms of wagering since Cella is a traditionalist at heart. But once the line was crossed, Oaklawn became an innovator in areas such as simulcasting races from other tracks and adding electronic games. In 1990, Oaklawn became the first North American track to bring full simulcasting cards across state lines. A decade later, the Instant Racing video game was introduced.
Now, Oaklawn has opened an 850-station electronic gambling room, a buffet, a separate video poker room and a racebook for high-dollar horse players. All the games are technically “electronic games of skill,” a designation allowing the track to get around the ban on casinos in the Arkansas Constitution. Legislation was passed in 2005 to allow these games of skill at Oaklawn and at the Southland greyhound track in West Memphis. Each track won local votes in 2006.
I don’t care for electronic games of any type. I likely will never play one at Oaklawn. But I do love thoroughbreds. I’m one of those people who can enjoy a day at the track and never place a wager. And the beauty of the Cella family is that they love racing more than anything. The electronic games truly are a means to fund greater purses and improve the racing facility. That wouldn’t be the case if Oaklawn were owned by a publicly traded corporation.
“Our job, in my opinion, is to make sure racing remains the main attraction here,” Cella once told me. “Not for one minute will I tolerate cutting back on what we do in the area of racing in order to promote gaming.”
Among Cella’s best innovations was the 1974 birth of the Racing Festival of the South. The festival includes a stakes race a day on the final seven days of racing each year, culminating with the Arkansas Derby. The Cella idea that paid off the most in terms of national publicity came three decades later in 2004. Cella announced that any 3-year-old 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. And along came Smarty Jones.
Since then, the 3-year-old program at Oaklawn has become even stronger.
Last night, almost 350 people packed the banquet room at the Wyndham Hotel in North Little Rock for a banquet sponsored by the Arkansas Thoroughbred Breeders’ and Horsemen’s Association. The size of the crowd showed the strength of thoroughbred racing in Arkansas.
Also consider the fact that two of the leading jockeys in America were in attendance. Calvin Borel, who became a nationally known sports celebrity last year when he rode Mine That Bird to victory in the Kentucky Derby and Rachel Alexandra to victory in the Preakness, was there. So was West Coast staple Corey Nakatani, the winner of eight Breeders’ Cup races in his career. The fact that both of these jockeys will ride the entire meet at Oaklawn says a lot about where the track now stands in the world of American racing.
Speaking at last night’s banquet was Maggi Moss, a former trial lawyer from Des Moines who gave up practicing law to concentrate on the thoroughbreds she owns. She consistently ranks as one of the country’s leading owners, and she loves Oaklawn.
She described Belmont Park in New York, with its surly race fans, as “a hostile work environment.”
She described Santa Anita Park in California as “beautiful but there is no one there.”
She described Oaklawn as “the greatest racetrack in America.”
“The enthusiasm here is unlike any other other place in the country,” Moss said.
Think about it. Arkansas does not have a major league baseball team. We don’t have an NFL, NBA or NHL team. Thoroughbred racing is the one professional sport where we truly are in the big leagues.
It’s time for what they used to call the Fifth Season to begin.