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story.lead_photo.caption Charles Cella talks to a group at an announcement breakfast in Hot Springs in this February 4, 2010, file photo. (The Sentinel-Record/Richard Rasmussen)

Charles Cella, a leading figure in horse racing for more than half a century and the longtime president of the Oaklawn Jockey Club in Hot Springs, has died at age 81.

Oaklawn Racing & Gaming said in a news release that Cella died of complications from Parkinson's disease surrounded by family at his home in St. Louis.

Cella has been the president of Oaklawn since 1968.

“At this time of great sadness for our family, we find comfort in knowing that one of the great joys in his life was seeing Oaklawn develop into a national treasure with such a significant economic impact on Arkansas," the Cella family said in a statement. "In addition to the holidays with his family, his favorite time of the year was always the Oaklawn racing season with fans, horsemen and staff.”

Cella owned and raced multiple thoroughbreds, including 1995 Breeders' Cup Turf champion Northern Spur.

In 2010, Cella seized an opportunity to lure superstar female horses Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta to the track by promising a $5 million purse for the Apple Blossom Invitational if both showed up.

Rachel Alexandra did not, so the purse reverted to $500,000 in the race Zenyatta won for her 16th consecutive victory. Still, Cella came out ahead. Instead of costing him $5 million, he lost $172,753 because of minus win and place wagering pools. The rare negative win pool alone was $27,275.

"You can go certainly a generation without seeing the quality of these two horses," Cella told The Associated Press that year. "I'm disappointed for racing and the public. It would've been gangbusters."

In addition to Oaklawn, Cella was president of Southwestern Enterprises Incorporated and Southern Real Estate and Financial Company. He also owned and raced numerous thoroughbreds, including 1995 Breeders’ Cup Turf champion Northern Spur, the release said.

Born Aug. 27, 1936, in St. Louis, Cella graduated from Washington and Lee University with a bachelor's degree in political science. He was once a nationally ranked squash player.

Cella is survived by his two sons, John and Louis Cella, his daughter, Harriet Marshall, and eight grandchildren. Funeral arrangements will be announced when finalized, the release said.

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson released a statement Thursday afternoon mourning the loss of "one of the great American sportsmen."

"Through his unique combination of vision for the future and respect for the sport’s traditions, Cella transformed the facility and left an indelible mark on the industry as a whole,” the governor said.

Read Thursday's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette for full details.

Rachel Herzog of Arkansas Online and The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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