Best Friend - By Lenny Shulman

One thing about Charles Cella and his most accomplished racehorse, Northern Spur: They both loved running on wet tracks. Northern Spur won the 1995 Breeders' Cup Turf (G1T) for Cella and trainer Ron McAnally over a boggy grass course in New York. Cella, who died Dec. 6 at 81, never met a party he didn't like, and he himself threw some corkers, replete with orchestras and free-flowing refreshments.

The racing world celebrates Cella for his stewardship of Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark., which he took over in 1968 upon the death of his father and built up to a premier winter destination for equines and humans alike. After trying and failing to bring casino gambling to the facility, Cella's embrace of Instant Racing became a touchstone of Oaklawn's success and a model for other jurisdictions, none more important than Kentucky.

His friends celebrate Cella for all the good times he provided and shared with them. McAnally and Keeneland chairman emeritus Ted Bassett were two of his closest running mates.

"I called him on Thanksgiving, which I did every year," said McAnally, "and we went down memory lane reliving all the good times we've had."

Added Bassett, "We pulled a lot of charades on other people, but he was susceptible to the gags, too."

After McAnally purchased Argentine classic winner Fanatic Boy for Cella, the horse was in the midst of being imported to the United States. Bassett, employing a Spanish accent, called Cella on the phone.

"I told him I was a customs officer and that the peso had changed in valuation," Bassett said, laughing. "And Charlie was like, ‘Who the hell is this? So what?' I told him he hadn't paid the correct export fee and ‘No peso, no horse.' Charlie proceeded to call Ron and chew his ass out."

McAnally recalled that Marylou Whitney used to stay at Cella's home in Hot Springs when she came to the races there. One day Bassett called Alonzo, who had worked in Cella's home for decades, and told him he was a locksmith in Hot Springs, and that Cella had called him to come change the locks in his house because Marylou had been sleepwalking and coming into Cella's bedroom. When Cella returned from the races that night, he couldn't get into his home.

"I have that Breeders' Cup trophy from Northern Spur right in front of a picture of four cowboys on the loose and shooting up the town," McAnally said. "It's called ‘Cowboys Coming Through the Rye,' and I thought it was fitting to put it next to the trophy won by Charlie Cella's horse."

One Fourth of July, McAnally remembered having dinner with Cella and a handful of friends whom Cella had flown to New York for the occasion. They were in Peter Luger's steakhouse in the city. "Charlie says, ‘C'mon boys, everybody hold hands and stand up and we'll sing ‘God Bless America.' So we stood up and started singing, and everyone in the place-and it was packed-got up and started singing along, too.

"So when we won that Breeders' Cup Turf, Bassett, who was president of the organization, was supposed to present the trophy for the following race, but he decided on the spur of the moment he'd present the one to Charlie instead. And the two of them started singing ‘God Bless America' again in the winner's circle. So many good times we had together."

Bassett described his friend as "undaunted, unbridled, and unwavering in his quest to act in the best interests and proven traditions of racing."

Added McAnally, "He was one of the finest people I've ever known."



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