Charles J. Cella, under whose leadership the Oaklawn Jockey Club evolved into a national powerhouse among Thoroughbred facilities conducting winter-spring race meets, has died due to complications from Parkinson’s disease. The 81-year-old President and Chairman of the Board of Oaklawn died at his St. Louis home surrounded by family according to his sons John and Louis Cella.
Owned by the Cella family since 1915, Oaklawn’s rise in prominence in the last half-century was largely due to Charles Cella, who assumed leadership of the track in 1968 following the death of his father John. In addition to creating the Racing Festival of the South in the mid-1970s, a series of high-profile stakes which attracted many of the nation’s top horses to Oaklawn, Cella, is also credited with popularizing full-card interstate simulcasting and the creation of Instant Racing, the pari-mutuel historical racing machines found in various parts of the country.
“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,” the Cella 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 addition to Oaklawn, Cella was also President of Southwestern Enterprises Inc. and Southern Real Estate and Financial Company. A prominent Thoroughbred owner and member of The Jockey Club, Cella’s most notable runner was 1995 champion turf male Northern Spur.
Cella is survived by his two sons, daughter Harriet Marshall, and eight grandchildren. Arrangements are pending.