Oaklawn Owner Charles Cella Dies at 81

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. (News release) – Charles J. Cella, a leading figure in American Thoroughbred racing for over a half century and longtime President and Chairman of the Board of the Oaklawn Jockey Club in Hot Springs, Arkansas, has died of complications from Parkinson’s disease. According to his sons John and Louis Cella, Cella was at home in St. Louis, surrounded by family. He was 81.

Cella took the reins of Oaklawn in 1968. Under his direction, Oaklawn developed into one of the largest and most respected racing centers in America. Oaklawn is credited with numerous innovations in the sport including The Racing Festival of the South, full-card interstate simulcasting and Instant Racing. 

In addition to Oaklawn, Cella was President of Southwestern Enterprises, Inc. and Southern Real Estate and Financial Company. He also owned and raced numerous notable Thoroughbreds, including 1995 Breeders’ Cup Turf champion Northern Spur. 

Survivors include his two sons and a daughter, Harriet Marshall, and 8 grandchildren. 

The Cella family released the following statement:

“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. 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.”

Arrangements will be announced when finalized.

On behalf of the Hot Springs Advertising and Promotion Commission, Steve Arrison, CEO of Visit Hot Springs, released this statement on Wednesday afternoon:
"Hot Springs’ tourism industry and all our citizens are forever indebted to Mr. Charles J. Cella, chairman of Oaklawn, for his vision and willingness to sacrifice immediate gain in order to create Arkansas’s greatest tourism destination and for his often-unrecognized personal generosity in creating and supporting some of Hot Springs’ most important economic development activities and institutions.

"We see the fruits of his efforts every day throughout our city. 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."

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