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At one point, and it may have stayed that way, Charles Cella had not stepped foot in Oaklawn Park's racino.

He was 100 percent horseman and apparently the acorn didn't fall far from the tree. When Cella died, his son Louis was named president and CEO of Oaklawn.

Almost before the final race that closes Oaklawn each year had run, work was beginning on a new winner's circle, a move from the infield into the grandstand area, and an update of the running surface was ordered.

Oaklawn Park may have a racino but racing is still the name of the game.

The tradition of enhancing racing has now continued for 114 years, but an interesting sidebar to Oaklawn's commitment to thoroughbred racing is that it now has classes for new full-time employees.

Oaklawn Jockey Club University it has been dubbed.

It is taught by former general manager and current Senior Vice President Eric Jackson who had the idea and wrote the six-week curriculum.

While a few close friends might tease Jackson that he always secretly wanted to be a professor because of the scholarly Hendrix graduate's vision, wit and insight, the truth was the man who created Instant Racing also wanted to ensure the Oaklawn values were passed on for generations to come.

He has seen people like Cella, Terry Wallace, Cecil Alexander, Bobby Geiger, Bob Holthus, Leon Millsap, Bill Wamsley and Buddy Coleman leave the track for various reasons, and those were some of the men who shared the passion of Oaklawn horse racing.

He realized there was no formal or even informal way of passing on a century of institutional knowledge to help the future leaders, and he knew that a lot of emphasis in the future could be on his creation, the racino, because that was where the money was being made.

Money that has helped Oaklawn increase purses so many times that it now gains hall of fame jockeys and trainers every season.

The hard truth is Oaklawn would make a great deal more money if there was no horse racing, but the Cella family and folks like Jackson and David Longinotti, who heads up Oaklawn Anywhere which allows electronic wagering, will never let that happen.

To make sure, Jackson created OJCU.

Wayne Smith, who was hired to replace Jackson as general manager, is the poster child for the program.

When he was hired his background was in casinos and racinos but he volunteered for the classes because he wanted to not only help maintain the traditions of Oaklawn Park but to be part of the growth of the sport of kings.

The six-week course is time-consuming so it is only taught two or three times a year, and every person that has completed the journey has come away with a better understanding of the blend of horse racing and Oaklawn Park.

The curriculum even includes a field trip to a horse farm and an education in breeding.

Many of the tracks around the country that were able to add a racino have all but forgotten horse racing, but at Oaklawn, horse racing is the crowned champion for the foreseeable future.

One can only wonder if the moving of the winner's circle might be the first step into the lifelong dream of installing a turf track, which would be costly but would further Oaklawn's national reputation and put it on the radar for the Breeders' Cup.

Not that it needs the Breeders' Cup to validate its standing in the thoroughbred industry. That started to grow the day the racino opened to make money for horse racing.

Sports on 07/11/2018

Print Headline: Oaklawn continues to be at top of its game

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