HOT SPRINGS, Ark. -- When COVID cases first appeared in March 2020, St. Louis businessman Louis Cella knew his family's casino and racetrack in Hot Springs, Ark., drew at least 10,000 people daily during its racing season.
Then-Gov. Asa Hutchinson was considering how to use the state's power to contain the spread of a deadly new virus.
Cella called Hutchinson directly.
"I'm going to take one issue off your plate," he said. Cella said he would shut down the Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort and the racetrack.
Within a week or so later, however, he realized that all the thoroughbred horses on their grounds still needed to be seen by the vet and still required daily exercise and grooming.
He called the governor again. Cella proposed coming up with safety measures that would allow him to reopen the racetrack.
Hutchinson gave him the green light.
"It was a tremendous undertaking," Cella said. The staff put in place protocols to try to keep the 1,500 horses and 800 humans who tend to them as safe as possible from the virus. They even converted a restaurant into a living space for out-of-town jockeys.
No fans were allowed to enter the grounds. Horses raced in front of empty grandstands. For the three weeks when every other professional sport was shut down, Oaklawn's horse races were televised and taking bets.
What a stroke of luck. The decision to reopen paid off bigger than Cella could have ever imagined.
"Everyone in America was at home. There were no other sports. Our business exploded," Cella said. He had not anticipated a boom during an apocalyptic time for most other entertainment and hospitality industries, but that's exactly what happened.
"Holy smokes," he said to his team. "We're the only professional sports game in town. In the United States."
It was yet another pivot in the St. Louis family's 107 years of sole ownership of the racetrack -- another moment that turned around potential disaster. The Cella family has a storied and colorful history with horse racing in St. Louis and Arkansas, beginning with his great-granduncle, Louis A. Cella and great grandfather, Charles Cella.
Louis Cella grew up in St. Louis and lives in Ladue, Mo., and also heads St. Louis-based Southern Real Estate and Financial Co. He is the fourth generation to manage Oaklawn, taking over after his father died in 2017.
In late 2018, Cella embarked on a $100 million expansion to the property, with plans to add a hotel, entertainment venue, spa and expand the casino, the main money maker in the complex. He has a grand vision for what the resort could become in one of Arkansas' top tourist destinations. Just as important to him is how he might help revive a declining sport dating back to ancient times. Horse racing runs deep in the Cella family tradition. Despite the sport's aging demographics, growing concerns about horse welfare and an array of competing gambling options, Cella is betting on the ponies.
Overcoming the odds
Gambling, now a $60 billion industry in America, has been at the mercy of the laws regulating it.
From the late 1890s to 1904, Louis A. Cella and his two business partners had a monopoly on the St. Louis horse racing market. By the time Oaklawn opened in 1905, Missouri had outlawed gambling. Louis A. Cella had been a dominant force in the Midwest horse racing industry with a controlling interest in 25 tracks at one point. He was a part of the Oaklawn Jockey Club that constructed Oaklawn. But two years after it opened, Arkansas also abolished bookmaking.
The racetrack shut down for more than a decade.
By 1914, Louis A. Cella and his brother Charles became the primary owners and reopened Oaklawn in 1916 for a short racing schedule under the guise of a nonprofit civic enterprise. It didn't last long, and the track was shut down again in 1919.
It wasn't until 1935 when pari-mutuel wagering was legalized in the state that a new era began for the only surviving racetrack in Arkansas. In pari-mutuel betting odds are not fixed, rather all wagers are placed together in a pool. The next several decades brought increases in attendance and a longer racing season. The only place to see and bet on live horseracing in the St. Louis metro area is at Fanduel Sportsbook and Horse Racing, formerly known as Fairmount Park Racetrack in Collinsville.
The fortunes for racetracks started changing in the late 1980s with the start of riverboat gambling. In 1989, Cella's father, Charles, made a handshake deal with the owner at Arlington Park, Ill., to begin wagering across state lines between the two racetracks. That spread to other states and also increased profits at Oaklawn, allowing betting year round.
In the '90s, as casinos in neighboring states took off, Oaklawn tried to get casinos approved in Arkansas. Those efforts failed.
"We were at a crossroads and had to be creative," Cella said. They came up with a product called Instant Racing, where players could bet on historic races stripped of identifying names on a device that looked like a slot machine but operated on pari-mutuel betting. It took off at Oaklawn, and Cella began selling it to other tracks around the country.
A pivotal change came in November 2018 when voters approved all casino games, including sports betting, in the state.
Cella jumped at the opportunity to expand and used the casino earnings to grow the purse, or prize money, at races. Oaklawn offers one of the highest purses among tracks in the country. He also expanded the season to run from December until May.
The success of the casino is crucial to keeping its racing competitive and financially feasible.
"Unless you have an alternative revenue source, horse racing is not going to make it," Cella said.
Luring younger fans
Horse racing has a significant demographic problem -- the televised viewing audience is getting older. The average age rose to 63 in 2016, according to Nielsen data.
The industry recognizes the challenges in attracting younger fans. It has to find ways to entice them to hang around for hours at a racetrack on race days and address concerns about how the horses are treated, during their racing careers and the decades after.
The marketing strategy at Oaklawn specifically targets younger audiences. There are special days set aside for high schoolers and college students, when college scholarships are awarded. They're focused on creating a family culture and offering kid-friendly experiences, according to general manager Wayne Smith. In the spring, the infield is set up with activities like petting zoos, rock climbing, bounce houses and free hot dog giveaways. Prices for concessions are lower than other professional sporting events.
Once the track reopened for spectators during the pandemic, Oaklawn began seeing more sororities and fraternities show up for race days.
"In the last three years, there's been an influx of people in their 20s and 30s coming to the races," Smith said. "Honestly, I can't explain why they are coming."
Cella attributes it to building on the Arkansas tradition and culture around racing, where the fashion and cocktails matter and the racetrack is a place to see and be seen.
He hopes that luring young families with entertainment and food -- rather than the gambling -- will create a lasting positive association and fond memories for a new generation of fans.
"That's what we're selling," he said.
Answering the critics
Part of winning over younger generations is dealing with their concerns about horse welfare and what happens to thoroughbreds once their few years of racing are over.
The Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act was signed into federal law in 2020. The Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority became responsible for drafting and enforcing uniform safety and integrity rules in thoroughbred racing in the country. The authority's first racetrack safety regulations went into effect in July 2022 and anti-doping rules and enforcement programs began this past May.
Cella knew he wanted to be involved in the process from the beginning. He invited regulators to come visit Oaklawn, where he touts the safety record and standards for equine care.
The regulators adopted several of their programs, he said.
Despite the new industrywide reforms and increased oversight, the nonprofit advocacy group Horseracing Wrongs has a stated mission to expose animal cruelty and end horse racing. The organization says it has documented 23 horse deaths at Oaklawn during the 2022-23 season through its Freedom of Information Requests to the state.
Cella disputes that statistic and says the number is closer to four deaths out of 5,600 starts. While they are continuously trying to do better, he said, some premature deaths are part of the cycle of life, even if horses remain in the wild.
One of the problems facing the state, he said, is the lack of facilities nearby to treat an injured horse. All of the horses at Oaklawn are treated onsite. Equine necropsies have to take place at veterinary facilities in Little Rock, a little more than 50 miles away from Hot Springs.
The high stakes
The Breeders' Cup, which began in 1984 as a year-end championship for North American thoroughbreds and breeders, was held a few weekends ago at Santa Anita in California.
The week began with a tragedy that has made similar headlines from the most highly watched horse racing events in the country. Practical Move, the Santa Anita Derby winner, dropped dead of an apparent cardiac event after finishing a morning gallop. The death came after an investigation into 12 horses that died from April through May at Louisville, Kentucky's Churchill Downs, site of the famed Kentucky Derby. Hours before the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico in Maryland, a 3-year-old colt had to be euthanized on the track after an injury during an undercard race. Two more horses died at Belmont Park after the Belmont Stakes, the third and final jewel of the Triple Crown.
High-profile incidents have increased scrutiny about the condition and surfaces of tracks, the training schedules, the use of drugs and breeding practices for the horses. Data from the Equine Injury database maintained by the Jockey Club shows that per 1,000 starters in 2022, the rate of horse fatalities actually declined -- for the fourth straight year.
Cella points to the reforms as the way forward for the industry.
Beyond the marketing strategy for the hotel and racino, he takes it as a personal mission to introduce new people to the sport. He recalled taking a group of old college friends to Oaklawn in 2021.
"They didn't know one set of horses from another," he said. A few were more interested in the spa than the race track. But on the race day, they gathered in the clubhouse of the indoor grandstand. One of his buddies was holding a corn dog in one hand and watching Auburn play basketball in the NCAA Tournament on the television. He kept looking away from the game to keep an eye on the horse races.
"He was eating his corn dog, looking back and forth between the TV and track," Cella laughed.
He counted that as a win.
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