Oaklawn survives early trials to become top U.S. track

March 5-11, 2018

By Jay Edwards


We’ve had many offers [to sell Oaklawn] through the years, and sometimes I scratched my head and wondered why we didn’t pursue them. But it’s the tradition. I remember as a young boy coming down there with my father and grandfather. I really think that’s what makes it so darn special with me. I can’t really explain it.

                ~ Charles Cella


You enter Oaklawn Park through a row of turnstiles just past the sidewalk on Central Avenue. The glass booths where you used to pass the $2 admission to an attendant sit empty, as it’s now free to come inside.


Walking through the heavy glass doors you stop at the portable white stand for the day’s program and perhaps a copy of the Daily Racing Form, if you didn’t already start handicapping early the night before. Also stacked in neat piles are colorful tip sheets, with names like Silent Sam, Stable Boy and Bullsheet.


Further inside the crowd shuffles about, studying forms, sipping beer, with an eye on the monitors above that project the changing tote board odds from just outside in the infield, as well as from other racetracks around the country. The possibilities are endless and optimism still runs high.


If it’s opening day you might stop by one of the many food stands for a promotional fifty cent corn beef sandwich, Oaklawn’s signature meal. You feel the excitement and get caught up in it all as you make your way to the grandstands or a private box, or perhaps to the elevator and the Jockey Club upstairs. You take a quick glance through other glass doors that lead outside, and you spy the dirt, part of the one mile oval track built here for the sport of kings and where Babe Ruth once jogged.


These are a few of the familiar rituals that thousands of patrons go through each year in Hot Springs during a morning at the track. And while much of it is the same each and every time, there was one big difference in 2018. Charles Cella was no longer around.


After leading Oaklawn for almost half a century, Cella passed away last Dec. 6 from complications of Parkinson’s Disease. He was 81 years old.


“[Mr. Cella] was a great sportsman. He loved Oaklawn,” said John Servis, trainer of Smarty Jones. “I was talking to a trainer yesterday, and we were talking about racetracks, and he was saying he’d never been to Oaklawn. I was telling him how Mr. Cella used to have a group of trainers come to his house for dinner every night of the NCAA championship basketball games. We watched in his house at the eighth pole.”


The Cella family has been a part of Oaklawn since the beginning when the three owners of the Southern Club, which used to occupy the building that now holds the Josephine Tussaud Wax Museum, decided they wanted to own a racetrack.


It would not be the city’s first. Two others were already doing a lively business, Sportsman’s Park, which had been around since the early 1890s, and Essex Park, which opened in 1904. But the three nightclub owners, Charles Dugan, Dan Stuart and John Condon decided to throw their hats into the racing ring and hired renowned Chicago architect Zachary Taylor Davis to design it. He came up with a glass-enclosed, heated grandstand that would seat 1,500 spectators. A decade later Davis turned his talents back to Chicago and baseball, and the then-new Wrigley Field.


Condon also brought in brothers Louis and Charles Cella of St. Louis as partners, whose family operated several racetracks in the Midwest.


An article in the Los Angeles Herald newspaper said the group spent approximately $500,000 to build Oaklawn. They went on to note that racing secretary Martin Nathanson “found himself the most sought after person in Hot Springs” because of the stampede for stalls in advance of the anticipated 1905 opening. They chose the original name, the Oaklawn Jockey Club, from the rural community where they would build their track, which got its name from early settler Peter LaPatourel’s home, because it sat in a large stand of ancient oak trees.


Hot Springs was a popular destination for celebrities in the early part of the twentieth century, with a growing reputation as a health resort and the healing powers of its hot mineral baths. Add in legalized gambling and you had a steady boom of tourists. One of them made his annual trek all the way from Chicago each year, and liked it so much that he built a house and a barn near the backstretch at Oaklawn. Al Capone also loved playing poker at the Southern Club, where he always sat at an elevated table so he could view the entire room. Likewise, the suite he always chose at the nearby Arlington Hotel, number 443, overlooked the Southern Club from its balcony.


Eventually, the country’s most famous mob boss came less and less, and Oaklawn bought his barn and house, naming the barn the Count Fleet, after the 1943 Triple Crown winner. It was also rumored that Mrs. Emil Denemark, of Cicero, Illinois, was Capone’s mother-in-law. She rose to prominence as an owner at Oaklawn, winning titles in 1940, 1941, 1949, 1950, and 1959. And she won the Arkansas Derby in 1940 with Super Chief.


Scheduled to open on February 13, 1905, Mother Nature necessitated a two day delay. The Hot Springs Railroad Co., according to the Sentinel-Record, offered  a special race-day service that would make several stops downtown, and drop fans off at the grandstand. Returning cars would leave after the fifth race, and another after the last race. Twenty cents would buy you the round trip.


Oaklawn’s first two seasons went well, but then it abruptly ended. Much of the state was still anti-gambling, and a new legislative bill was being strongly advocated by William McGuigan, a former legislator who also happened to be the former owner of Essex Park. The bill was titled, “An Act to Prevent Betting in any Manner in This State on any Horse Race.” It passed on February 27, 1907, and Oaklawn was shut down for the next ten years. The infield stayed open for other events and was the site of the Arkansas State Fair from 1906 through 1914. President Teddy Roosevelt attended the 1910 fair, giving a speech.


In 1915, it was back to the legislature with a bill that would legalize horse racing and pari-mutuel betting, a method where all bets are pooled and payouts are based on the odds established before each race. It passed both houses but was vetoed by Governor George Washington Hays. A year later, the Hot Springs Men’s Business League reopened Oaklawn, creatively calling the short meet, a nonprofit civic enterprise. Pari-mutuel betting was not allowed, but other, less official forms of wagering were said to have taken place.


This thirty day meet was a success, which led to a plan for reopening both Oaklawn and Essex Park the following year. The idea was that the two tracks would split a full season. However, just one day after Essex reopened, sporting a beautiful remodel, it burned down, which gave the entire season to Oaklawn alone and forever ended racing at Essex Park. Oaklawn honors its former rival each year with the running of the $100,000 Essex Handicap.


From 1919 to 1933, Oaklawn was shut down again after a circuit judge put forth an opinion saying racing was illegal. Then in 1934 a group of prominent Hot Springs citizens and businessmen, including Mayor Leo P. McLaughlin, formed the Business Men’s Racing Association and announced that races would be held in March of that year. The move was inspired by growing national interest in the sport of thoroughbred racing and the need to draw more visitors to the city. On March 1, 1934, Oaklawn reopened to a crowd of 8,000 spectators without the consent of the legislature. Future legal ambiguity was avoided in 1935 with the passage of a bill to permit horse racing with pari-mutuel wagering, and at last the bill was signed into law.


Now, the fifth generation of the Cella family takes over, with Charles’ sons, John and Lou running things. Their father leaves a strong legacy, and the labor of love that began with his grandfather and great uncle is likely to continue.


“I really don’t know anybody who had a greater passion for Thoroughbred racing than Charles Cella,” said Eric Jackson, senior vice president of Oaklawn. “It was one of the great joys of his life to watch Oaklawn develop and become a significant racing center and a significant stop on the American racing calendar.”


Sources: Daily Racing Form, oaklawn.com, Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture  




These days, Oaklawn serves as a great way to spend a Saturday. Audience members and jockeys alike are proud to call the facility home. (Photo courtesy of the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism)