HOT SPRINGS, Ark. (KTHV) – 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.

Governor Asa Hutchinson released a statement on the passing of Cella:

“With the news of the passing of Charles Cella, horse racing fans everywhere are no doubt mourning the loss of one of the great American sportsmen. Upon becoming Oaklawn’s President in 1968, Cella became the third generation of his family to lead the organization, and during his tenure, he built the track into a world-class destination for thoroughbred racing. Through his unique combination of vision for the future and respect for the sport’s traditions, Cella transformed the facility and left an indelible mark on the industry as a whole. He will be missed.”

Oaklawn is the longest, continuously-owned sports franchise in the country of all sports genres.