Denny Dressman is a Denver Press Club Hall of Famer who began a 44-year career in journalism as a sports writer at the Kentucky Post…so it only makes sense that his new book marks a return to the sport of kings: horse racing. Specifically, horse racing by way of the storied career of trainer John Parisella and the celebrity life he led.
Locals may remember Dressman from the many hats he wore with the late, lamented Rocky Mountain News, or his work presiding over the Colorado Authors League or any of the nine other books to his credit. We caught up with Dressman on the occasion of the publication of his tenth book, From the Streets of Brooklyn to Trainer to the Stars: John Parisella’s Lifetime of Celebrity Connections, which Dressman is bringing to the Barnes & Noble on Colorado Boulevard for a signing at 1 p.m. on Saturday, November 23. Come by to meet Dressman — and to get Parisella’s unique and captivating story directly from the horse’s mouth. You know, so to speak.
Westword: What led you to write about Parisella's storied career?
Denny Dressman: Believe it or not, a guy I knew from my neighborhood post office asked me if I'd be interested in doing a book about this thoroughbred trainer who was full of stories about the many celebrities he'd associated with during his long career as a very successful horse trainer. The postal worker (now retired) is Frank Vento. He has a publishing company named Hit The Mark Books.
Frank told me that John had been instrumental in getting Rick Pitino the head coaching job at the University of Kentucky back in the ’90s; that he was reality-TV star Bethenny Frankel's stepfather; that he'd lived for a time with the actor James Caan; that he'd once introduced Bono, the lead singer for U2, to Frank Sinatra backstage in Las Vegas; and that he went drinking frequently with Mickey Mantle and his Yankee teammates of the early 1960s.
I told Frank I'd have to look into the guy to see what kind of training career he'd had, and probably would need to meet him to get a sense of the quality of his celebrity adventures. On that basis, we went to Monterey, California, where John was living at the time. I interviewed him for several days and came home convinced it could make a terrific book. Everything Frank had told me was true, and that was only part of an amazing life.
As a trainer, John entered horses in almost 7,000 races and won almost 20 percent of them, and finished in the money (one-two-three) in about half of them. His best horse, Simply Majestic, set a world record for the fastest time in the mile-and-an-eighth, breaking the mark set by Secretariat. It still stands.
On top of all of that, John had many dramatic ups and downs in his life. He overcame a serious drug addiction and gambled himself into destitution more than once. One person who read the book said that's what she liked best about his story.
“That makes him human," she said, "and his ultimate success shows that anyone can overcome their weaknesses, setbacks and failures.”
Parisella worked with a number of celebrities — legends themselves, many of them. What celebrity story most surprised you?
There are so many great stories — he has lived a remarkable life — but if I had to pick one, I guess it would be the time he went shopping with John A. Gotti, the son of the mob boss John Gotti, in Saratoga Springs, New York, during the Saratoga meeting. Or I might go with the night John went with Caan to the Playboy Mansion and walked the grounds for three hours with Barbi Benton, Hugh Hefner's live-in girlfriend at the time — much to Hefner's dismay. It's hard to choose just one.
Were there other celebrities for whom Parisella had stories but there wasn't enough room in the book to include them?
I pretty much used everything he told me about. He mentioned being friends with Burt Bacharach and Angie Dickinson, but didn't tell me any stories about them. There must be something from that relationship that didn't make the book, but I don't know what it is.
What made John Parisella so successful as a trainer?
The really surprising thing about John is that he never learned to ride a horse, and actually was afraid of horses. But a couple of trainers, including Hall of Famer John Campo, taught him early on how to watch a horse and learn its subtle changes from day to day. It was nothing for John to sit in a stall for two or three hours and watch one of his horses to look for signs. He developed an ability to work with horses' feet that salvaged many of them from also-rans to winners.
Do you have a favorite racing story involving Parisella?
Every trainer dreams of saddling a Kentucky Derby winner. I think my favorite racing story involving John is the time he ALMOST trained the 1985 Derby champion Spend A Buck. It's a classic "What Might Have Been" story.
So you’re a serious horse-racing fan.
I grew up in Kentucky, so I've followed horse racing most of my life. I worked in Louisville for three years early in my career, at the Courier-Journal and Louisville Times, and covered the Kentucky Derby several times, including a few after I moved to the Cincinnati Enquirer. In fact, I covered the only Derby in which the winning horse failed the post-race drug test. That was in 1968, when Dancer's Image was disqualified after the banned anti-inflammatory phenylbutazone showed up in his post-race urinalysis. Forward Pass was declared the winner. Interestingly, the drug was legalized six years later, and in the 1986 Derby, thirteen of the sixteen horses in the race were running on it. But that, of course, didn't help Dancer's Image.
Do you think horse racing can stand the test of time? Is its heyday over?
I think it will remain strong in states where it has been strong historically, especially Kentucky and New York. Off-track betting has had a tremendous impact as far as diminishing attendance at live racing. I address this in the book.
Speaking of the test of time...you used to work for the much-missed Rocky Mountain News. Can you tell us what roles you played, and for how long?
I worked at the Rocky for 25 years. I came in 1982 as executive sports editor. I had a variety of newsroom management positions, such as assistant managing editor/news and editor of our first attempt at an online newspaper. It was called a la carte News. This was before the Internet; we were ahead of our time.
I was vice president/labor and human resources for ten years, handling all bargaining and contract enforcement with our eight unions during that time, as well as directing all HR service for about 1,200 employees. After the Joint Operating Agreement with the Denver Post took effect in 2001, I was associate managing editor/administration for the News until I retired in 2007.
With the benefit of hindsight, what do you wish the Rocky had been able to do in order to survive? Any insights over the years since its shuttering?
For many reasons that I won't go into now, I will always believe that the News was winning the newspaper war when the E.W. Scripps Company opted for the JOA. The demise of newspapers can be tied directly to the industry's inability to figure out how to integrate itself into the online world and monetize electronic publishing. Newspapers tried to adapt print to the Internet instead of recognizing that the Internet was a new medium and developing specific applications utilizing newspapers' inherent strengths.
And what's your opinion on the state of the media in Colorado these days? If you had to place a bet, where will it all be ten years from now?
I worry for the future of all big-city newspapers everywhere. They're the ones that are hurt the most by not only the Internet as a vehicle of commerce, but also all electronic forms of information delivery now (websites, blogs, social media, etc.), as well as 24/7 cable news/opinion.
Colorado may not be hurt as badly by this trend because of its concentration of small dailies and weeklies throughout the state. Mid-size and smaller papers will continue to thrive, because there's nothing to serve their communities as well as they do.
What's your favorite memory of the Rocky Mountain News?
Corny as it sounds, my favorite memory is just the way the Rocky connected with its readers. It has been more than ten years since the last edition was published, and I still have people tell me how much they miss the paper and ask why the Rocky was the one to go away.
Denny Dressman will sign copies of his book From the Streets of Brooklyn to Trainer to the Stars: John Parisella's Lifetime of Celebrity Connections from 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday, November 23, at the Barnes & Noble at 960 South Colorado Boulevard in Glendale.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.