Like so many other horse racing fans, retired trainer John Parisella didn’t make the annual pilgrimage to Saratoga this season. In fact, until this year, he’d come every year for 40 years. “It’s a special place to me, in my heart,” says the native Brooklynite, now 79 and living on Long Island. “To see it with no fans is sad to me.” When his stepdaughter, Real Housewives alum Bethenny Frankel, and daughter, Gabby Vaughan, were little, he brought them with him, inspiring Frankel to write in one of her books that Saratoga was her “very favorite” memory of her childhood. And his daughter? “We were just texting about missing going to the Wishing Well this year,” he says. “She used to love coming and sitting in the box. Her picture once made the front page of The Saratogian.” His memories are also flooded with snapshots of a more high-roller lifestyle, which his uncle, Don Rickles’ manager, introduced him to and which he reminisces about in his memoir, Trainer to the Stars, by Denny Dressman. (It can be found at Northshire Bookstore and also on northshire.com.) “I’m not the kind of guy who’s like, ‘Oh, boy, you’re so and so,’” he says about the stars he met. “They found me entertaining.” Let’s see what Parisella remembers about the good ol’ days.
Ángel Cordero, JR. “I love him. He did most of my riding for me in Saratoga. He still sends me videos of winning on my horses, which is so special to me.” Despite being only two years apart, Cordero calls Parisella “Papa.”
Johnny Carson It was on The Tonight Show that actor Jack Klugman dubbed Parisella “Trainer to the Stars,” but his favorite memory happened backstage. “I was sitting with Jimmy Stewart getting my makeup on, and I said to him, ‘What am I doing sitting next to you—you’re an icon!’ He was such a quiet, conservative guy, so nice. He said, ‘No, no, no.’”
Don Rickles “He always pulled me to the side to rag on my uncle. He was always being funny, busting my chops. I named a horse after him.” Don Rickles, the horse, won his first maiden race and placed in his first stakes race, the Hopeful Stakes, at Saratoga. Rickles, the comedian, remained “too cheap” (Parisella wrote in the book) to invest in any horses of his own.
James Caan “I lived with Jimmy in Beverly Hills. It was a fun time. He loved horses. I trained for him in New York. When we arrived at the track, everybody would go crazy when he walked in, especially the women.”
Mickey Mantle “He wasn’t really into horses, but he liked listening to my horse stories. People love horse stories. I love football, and when I meet a football player, I want to ask them about football—but they just want more horse stories! It was that way with Mickey and baseball. We hung out a lot together.”
Frank Sinatra “He would always say, ‘Us Italians have to stick together.’ He wasn’t into horse racing, but he asked me to take his mother one time. So I did! I took her to Santa Anita. She loved it.”
Rick Pitino “My daughter’s godfather. He was a huge horse owner and one of the best friends I’ve ever had. I’ve named a lot of horses after him and his teams! We were so close that he sat me in his seat at the Knicks games [when he coached the team].”
Hugh Hefner “The biggest egomaniac I ever met. I got thrown out of the Playboy Mansion—and barred—because he came in, and I had been talking to [Hef’s girlfriend] Barbi Benton too long. We were just talking!”
Howard Stern “The only celebrity I found obnoxious and arrogant; one of the few people I’ve met in my life like that. I sold my house to him. Then I stopped talking to him; it was my doing.”
Bono “Bono is all class. His favorite singer is Frank Sinatra. I took him to a charity event at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. Don Rickles was the opening act for Sinatra. I got Bono backstage. The next year they did a duet together on Frank Sinatra’s first duet album.”