Horses hold special place in Dayton lawyer’s heart

As it turns out, the Hollywood actor has a lot in common with the Dayton lawyer, master woodworker and Warren County horseman.

Shatner won an Emmy and a Peabody Award playing a shoot-from-the-lip lawyer on “Boston Legal.” Denny is a mince-no-words defense attorney here in town known for taking on tough cases.

Both men love horses. They raise them, breed them, compete with them. In fact, a couple of years back Denny bought a horse by a stallion Shatner owned and won a lot of competitions with him.

And if you’re looking for another connection, consider that while Shatner’s new CBS sitcom is called “$#*! My Dad Says,” it’s Denny’s real-life story — especially in connection with these World Equestrian Games — that’s most surprising to hear.

The Games are like the Olympics and the Kentucky Derby all rolled into one. In fact, many horsemen around the world consider this 16-day competition that’s administered by the Federation Equestre Internationale every four years to be more important than the equine events at the Olympics.

These Games — contested through Oct. 10 by 995 competitors (including Shatner) from 58 nations at the Kentucky Horse Park — are expected to draw a crowd of a half-million.

One of the most improbable, against-the-odds participants is the 63-year-old Denny. He’s the owner and co-trainer of the team of horses that Australian Gavin Robson will pilot in the four-day Combined Driving event that begins Thursday.

Denny is not a fat-cat owner — no oil-rich sheik or trust fund business heir — nor is he a last-minute carpetbagger who bought his team from someone else right before arriving in Lexington. And the five horses — four starters and a sub — he has in Lexington are all his. Some entries are simply all-star teams cobbled together with top horses from various stables.

Denny bought his team — primarily Dutch Harness horses, but one Clydesdale/Hackney crossbreed and the other a Saddlebred and Dutch mix — from the Amish and a couple other places when most of the animals were green.

With the help of Robson, he broke them at his Spring Lake Farm on Old Route 122 outside Lebanon, trained them and turned them into world-class performers.

And what made the venture far more daunting was that two years ago — after 45 years of chewing tobacco — he was diagnosed with an aggressive form of throat cancer.

The illness and the rugged treatments that followed drained him physically — he lost 68 pounds — strained him financially and almost derailed the whole Equine Games dream.

But one thing cancer didn’t do was melt Denny’s resolve.

“I even went to court and argued an appellate case two months into treatment,” he said quietly. “When it comes to this (cancer), I just try to spit in its eye. It ain’t gonna get me.”

Calming influence

When he went to Lexington last weekend, he also visited his Aunt Carrie Ruth over in Pendleton County.

“She remembered when I was four or five years old and I slipped off to the barn,” he said with a smile. “There was this mean old brood mare that had just had a foal a couple days before and they both were in the paddock. I crawled through the fence and was petting the foal just a hand’s distance from the mare.

“Then I started playing ‘Under The Bridge’ and I’d walk back and forth under the mare. My aunt and them were scared to death that the mare — she was just evil — would bite and kick me.

“But that horse sensed I wouldn’t do anything wrong and never moved. And then my aunt calmly asked me to walk away real slow and come to the fence to talk to her. That mare never lifted an ear.

“My aunt said right then she knew I’d be doing something with horses in my life — always.”

And Carrie Ruth was right.

Back here at the family farm — located then at Ohio 725 and McEwen Road — Denny soon had a pony and a pony cart. On his grandpa’s farm in Kentucky, he’d crawl off a hay wagon onto the back of a massive draft horse and hang on for a ride.

By the time he was a track and cross country star at Centerville High, he also was showing horses. And when it was time for college, he picked a school — Centre College in Danville, Ky. — in the middle of horse country.

He ran cross country there, worked at a local farm and soon had an apprenticeship with crotchety Shorty Roberts, considered one of the best blacksmiths in the country.

Denny specialized in horse-shoeing problems and Saddlebreds, the high steppers of the show rings. He eventually built a blacksmith trade of his own that included nearly 300 clients and was being flown around the country to shoe horses.

That enabled him to pay his way through Samuel P. Chase law school at Northern Kentucky University, after which he returned to Centerville to practice law four days a week and continue shoeing horses every Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Asked to work on polo ponies, he quickly embraced the sport. He trained and sold the ponies and played not only for the Dayton Polo Club, but also in Florida — he’d fly in just for the winter weekends — India, Hawaii, Argentina and Ireland.

Nine years ago, though, he suffered five broken ribs, a punctured lung and bruised spine when the horse he was on tripped going full tilt and flipped him over its head.

That ended Denny’s polo, but a couple of years later he became interested in the sport of carriage driving and began to compete in it, as does his wife Marilyn now. (And for the uninitiated, at least in many of the events, think more of a buckboard driver chased by outlaws than a quaint carriage ride around Central Park.)

Soon after Denny met Robson — a two-time Australian driving champ who wanted to compete in Equine Games’ Combined Driving event — and a temporary partnership was formed.

Keeping it together

Putting a team together to compete in the dressage, marathon and obstacle cone events of Combined Driving requires someone to know each horse’s personality, its strengths and have something of a horse whisper’s touch to get them to respond to inflections of a driver’s voice.

It also takes plenty of money to feed, train and travel your team and when Denny went into cancer treatment, he had to put his law practice on hold for a while.

He kept his staff intact at his West First Street office and kept funding Robson’s Equine Games pursuit as best he could.

Finally he told his driver he needed to find some sponsorships to help out with costs — and they even had a fundraiser at the farm — but in the end Denny quietly dipped into his savings and kept the dream on track until he was back practicing law again.

While there were times he said he knew his cancer treatments were “bad,” he said “I never got to the point mentally where I was picking out my casket. Besides, I would have wanted to make my own casket anyway. ... So I just fought it.”

His team — as young as it is — qualified for the Games and while he’s hoping for a Top 10 finish, he’ll be happy just to be surrounded by all those horses down there this week.

“Winston Churchill put it best: ‘There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man,’ ” Denny said. “And that’s true.

“When I look at a horse strutting out on the field and he’s got pretty white leg markings and a stripe on his face and he’s holding his head up proud and you see the rhythm and the beauty, how can you not be moved?

“And then when you have the chance to be on the back of that horse or behind it driving — just to be a part of that as a team — there is nothing better.

“So whatever happens this week, I feel I’ve already won. No matter what, I get to go home with those horses.

“That is my gold medal.”

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