The clouds lifted briefly as Oaklawn officials and ambassadors from The Greater Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce held the official ribbon cutting on the 114th live meet. But Thursday also marked a special occasion for Oaklawn, with the unveiling of a life-size bronze statue of American Pharoah.
"When American Pharoah won the Rebel (Stakes) and the Arkansas Derby, we were so excited to have a horse that represented Oaklawn to even participate in the Kentucky Derby," said Louis Cella, president of Oaklawn Jockey Club. "And when he won the Kentucky Derby and he won the Preakness, we were in shock. How could we be so fortunate to have a horse that has a shot at being a Triple Crown winner, just like Smarty Jones about a decade or so before that?"
When American Pharoah won the Belmont Stakes, Cella said the family was all in attendance, cheering him on.
"(Charles Cella) was most happy," he said. "He could not believe the success that we had at Oaklawn."
A little more than a year after the Triple Crown win, Charles Cella commissioned his longtime friend's son to create a life-size sculpture of the winner to display at Oaklawn Park.
"I had made a couple sculptures for them before," said Artist James Peniston. "But I hadn't worked for Mr. Cella in 15 years."
Previously, Peniston had sculpted people, but had never created a life-size statue of a horse.
"I flew out to meet him, and he hadn't told me it was American Pharoah," Peniston said. "When I learned that, my jaw kind of hit the ground because, I thought he just wanted a horse.
"I had thought, 'Sure, I can make a horse,' but I didn't realize it was 'the horse.'"
Peniston said he spent the first six weeks reading everything he could on American Pharoah, and over the course of three months he visited numerous horse farms, studying thoroughbreds.
Studying them up close for the purpose of sculpting was an entirely different experience, he said.
"Horses aren't used to being around sculptors with tape measures and calipers," he said. "So everything that I did had to be just hands on petting the horse and rubbing down the legs, getting a real feel for the tension between skin and muscle, and how deep lying is the bone compared to the muscle in other areas.
"Those are just the kinds of things that you just can't get from photographs."
About a year after he was commissioned, Peniston put the sculpture on a flatbed trailer and brought the piece to Oaklawn 48 hours before the 2017 Arkansas Derby.
"Dad being dad said 'the public needs to see this statue today,'" Louis Cella said. "John Hopkins had to borrow a forklift heavy enough to pick up this statue because, we didn't have any on property. And we put it out in the parking lot per dad. No signage, no message, no announcement -- dad just wanted to see the fans marvel at this work of art."
The statue is the focal point of a newly renovated entrance to the grandstand at Oaklawn for guests to enjoy.
Oaklawn's 114th live meet begins today with an early first post at 12:30 p.m.
Local on 01/12/2018
Print Headline: Oaklawn Park unveils statue of Pharoah