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Staging a Race for the Ages

Washington and Lee alumnus Charles Cella’s name was prominent on national and international sports pages this week: his race track, Oaklawn Park, in Hot Springs, Ark., will be the center of the thoroughbred horse racing universe in April when the world’s top two horses meet in the Apple Blossom Invitational. Among other outlets, The New York Times cited Charlie’s pivotal role in scheduling the race between undefeated mare Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra, the unbeaten 2009 Horse of the Year. In the Times story headlined “One Man Creates Ultimate Duel,” Times horse racing writer Joe Drape wrote: “While you are anticipating what could be the greatest thing to happen to thoroughbred racing in America since Affirmed captured the Triple Crown in 1978, raise a glass to Charles Cella, the president of Oaklawn Park, who put the race together.” The race, which was increased to a total purse of $5 million, provided both Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta start, was moved to April 9 and will be held the day before the $1 million Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn. “I’ve never had so much trouble giving $5 million away,” Charlie told ESPN. “We’ve got a solid commitment, assuming, of course, their health continues.” Charlie is the third generation to run Oaklawn and has been president since 1968, succeeding his late father. His grandfather and great uncle  were among the founders of Oaklawn, which also drew praise in the Times’ piece on the big race. “…Oaklawn’s focus on quality horse racing … has earned it the reputation as the Saratoga of the South,” wrote Drape. In addition to the success with the track, Charlie has been a successful horse owner, too. His colt, Northern Spur, won the 1995 Eclipse Award as champion turf horse after winning the Breeders’ Cup Turf.  Oaklawn, Charlie, and his family were recognized with the 2004 Eclipse Award of Merit, and Charlie was inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 2008.

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