HOT SPRINGS, Ark. (KTHV) - Not much changes in the sport of horse racing, especially at a racetrack that's 114 years old, but Oaklawn starts this new season with considerable change, including a member of the Cella Family’s fourth generation taking charge.
Louis Cella takes the reins at Oaklawn from his father, Charles, who passed away Dec. 6.
“Dad’s father told him 'don't mess it up,'” Cella said during an interview in the track’s Triple Crown Room. “Dad told me 'don't mess it up.' I suspect Louis A. Cella, my great-grandfather whom I'm named after told John Cella 'Don't mess it up.’”
Louis, his brother John and sister Harriet all knew their father was ill. Charles Cella began preparations for the transition early then urged his family to move on.
“It's been a roller coaster, but Oaklawn's a big business, and we have a lot of people relying on us,” Louis Cella said.
His father believed in celebrations. On the eve of the season, the track honored Triple Crown winner American Pharaoh. The son plans to go on with celebrations like that.
“We've been very fortunate to have our racing program excel,” he said. “When you have American Pharaoh go on to win the Triple Crown that's pretty darn exciting. When Smarty Jones gets beaten by a nose to win the Triple Crown that's pretty exciting.”
Cella credits expanded gaming for helping make Oaklawn what it is today. He says others looking to bring casinos to Arkansas are a challenge his family is familiar with.
“There used to be wide open casino gambling in Hot Springs into the late 60s right when my father began his career,” he said. “Today, you cannot have that kind of competition and have racing. Now I don't want to come across as being disingenuous. We have gaming. No question about it, but we also have over 20 percent directly into purses.”
Those challenges lead to speculation that Cella will have trouble remaining a family-run gaming operation.
He says that’s not in his vision.
“We love this business. We're excited to be another generation managing this business,” said Cella. “We have a responsibility not only to our horsemen but to the city of Hot Springs and to the state of Arkansas to continue. So we're mindful of the challenges, but we've done that before.”
Cella vows to not only be hands on with the racing business on the front side but also with his family's racing stable on the backside. Another sign the family remains committed to racing alongside the gaming.