Thursday, December 7, 2017
Moments before the introduction of Hunter Yurachek as the new athletic director at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, an email informed me that Oaklawn Park, Arkansas and Missouri had lost a great man and leader.
Charles Cella left this world Tuesday night on a bullet train to heaven's winner's circle.
While watching the UA news conference with a heavy sadness, it struck me as odd that some fans are upset Yurachek is not from Arkansas. Neither was Frank Broyles, but both were raised in the South.
Charles was from St. Louis -- it was his home except during racing season -- but he understood Arkansas. From Christmas lights to fireworks to the art community, Charles was involved and invested in Hot Springs.
He led Oaklawn through the darkest days of thoroughbred racing to become one of the most vibrant and admired racing and gaming facilities in the world.
He was more successful as a father, grandfather and friend.
Harry King, Bob Weisner and yours truly, all columnists, were personal friends of Charles, which is difficult in the world of perspiring arts. But when it came to our jobs Charles never took it personal if something was written about Oaklawn that he didn't care for, as long as it was written cleverly or as he liked to say, "With a twinkle."
Charles had been fighting Parkinson's disease for several years, and the man put up a gallant fight without complaint.
A few years ago he was under strict doctor's orders to not travel, but no one was surprised when he showed up at my daughter Whitney's wedding, having flown from St. Louis and rented a car. Even his beloved daughter Harriet wasn't fazed when he called her to help him find his way to Fellowship Bible Church.
Charles loved and respected his children. When the kids were young, Charles traditionally took them to the Kentucky Derby. While they were standing in line, a man used some strong profanity -- Charles hated all profanity -- and Charles asked him nicely to watch his language because of the children.
Seconds later the man cursed again, and this time Charles asked not so politely. The man grabbed and yanked Charles' tie, that year's Arkansas Derby tie, and the next thing you knew the athletic Charles had the guy on the floor.
Charles once had a horse disqualified for biting another horse on the ear during the stretch run. It became Charles' favorite horse. He was that competitive.
Years ago in his log cabin on the 16th pole of the track, Cella would challenge guests to barbell-lifting contests or a race around the track. He never lost.
In 1987, Charles put up a $1 million bonus for any horse that could win the Rebel Stakes, Arkansas Derby and Kentucky Derby.
In 2004, he upped the ante to $5 million to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Oaklawn Park, but he told his sons John and Louis they should never try that because there's only one centennial. Smarty Jones pulled off the feat, but Charles quietly had gotten two insurance policies to cover the prize.
I have a million stories about Charles. We served on a scholarship committee together at Vanderbilt. When one of his sons couldn't make it to Las Vegas for the Sugar Ray Leonard-Tommy Hearns fight on 24 hours' notice, he took me. Who knew hotels had private pools and dining rooms.
He was a friend, a confidant and a good man who served his family, friends, and community quietly and confidently.
Charles J. Cella wasn't from Arkansas, but he was always one of us. He will be missed by legions.
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