The first thing to understand about jockey agents is that when they employ the first person singular, they are not necessarily speaking of themselves. For example, when Steve Vaonakis says, "I haven't taken days this year—knock on wood—but I tore my ligaments at Pimlico, and the year before I got thrown and had to go into intensive care with injuries to my liver and spleen," you can rest assured that he personally has suffered nothing much worse than indigestion. He is not talking about Steve Vaonakis but about Vincent Bracciale Jr., better known as Jimbo. Bracciale is a jockey out of Charles Town, W. Va., or Down Below in the neo-Runyon dialect that Vaonakis speaks. Vaonakis himself is from Wheeling, W. Va. Thus it is not so much a case of one Italian-American and one Greek-American but two Mountaineer-Americans who are on their way to the U.S. riding championship.
Vaonakis explains how: "Everyone is jockeying for position around a racetrack. Of course, that goes for me, too. This is what you do for the rider you are affiliated with. You both do your job. One's riding, one's hustling."
Riding and hustling—although not necessarily in that order—Bracciale and Vaonakis have already won 398 races this year, primarily at Pimlico, Bowie and Monmouth and rank second to Sandy Hawley, the tireless Canadian, for the North American title.
None of this is new for Vaonakis, who won a championship in 1962 with an apprentice named Ronnie Ferraro as his I, an achievement that will forever remain testament to Vaonakis' hustling ability. Ferraro has long since given up and gone back to the family business in Philadelphia. Vaonakis, meanwhile, passed through a series of jockeys before he took over young Bracciale's book in 1970. This year Vaonakis' agent's fee—25% of Vincent Bracciale Jr.'s earnings—will come to about $75,000 on line 17 of his 1040 form.
Since agents are permitted to represent no more than two jockeys at the same time, the relationship between them and their riders is most symbiotic. Harry Silbert, for instance, has been Shoemaker for 20 years, and if the other top agents and jockeys cannot boast of that longevity, they tend to move in the amiable way of Hollywood serial polygamy. The best jockeys find the best agents find the best trainers find the best horses find the best jockeys find the....
The class agents like Vaonakis are respected for being the most knowledgeable insiders in racing, but the profession attracts its shady element, too. A number of agents are really just touts searching for a cover profession. Others, called $8 agents, put their boy up on any cripple or rogue just to nail their 25% of the jockey's assured fee. Technically, it is illegal for an agent to bet against his I, but all occasionally do. Vaonakis seldom does, which is just as well. Joe Servis says, "As good an agent as he is, he's the worst handicapper I ever saw." Servis is head steward at Charles Town now, but about 15 years ago he rode for Vaonakis. "Back then," Vaonakis recalls, "it was not unusual Down Below for certain parties to approach me and ask me to convey a proposition to my rider. At them kind of ovals I had some good jockeys just loaded with larceny. But not Joe Servis. When I was asked to approach him, I knew full well he would not adhere to such tactics, but this individual said, well, you ask him anyways. Which I did. I took these tidings to Joe Servis, and he said no, and therefore I put him right at the top of the threshold."
Now it happened that back then Servis' trailer was next door to the Bracciale family's and, most important, Jeanette Bracciale's excellent Italian cooking. A pleasantly plump man with a large round face and a perfectly shaped oval coiffure surrounding tiny eyes, Vaonakis loves food. Starting when Jimbo was five years old, he would drop in on the Bracciales for hours and sit with Vince Senior and Servis, eating.
Jimbo's father, who is much stockier than Jimbo, left Brooklyn and started riding at 15. He is 52 now, the trainer of a small string of horses at Charles Town. As a rider he had a reputation for honesty but also caution. He has given more to his only son than he ever had himself, and he provided him with the environment of Charles Town, which instructs by osmosis. The place has only 3,000 people but two racetracks, Charles Town and Shenandoah Downs. Racing is the town's clean industry. There is so much of it that it seeps through the windows like smoke in a mill town. Since they can stay year-round, the jockeys settle there, and their boys grow up (only not much) and go to the races.
Jimbo rode in a pony race when he was five. Not long after, he started jumping makeshift hurdles in the Shenandoah parking lot. He rode shows. At seven or eight he started sneaking onto the track and working out of the gate. By 12 he could bandage a horse and prepare it for a race. As a teen-ager he rode escort ponies and exercised in the mornings. "My father was always a big help, but things just came to me on a horse," he says.
"You could see from the first that he could make it if he wanted to," Vince says matter-of-factly. "He was a natural athlete and he had horsemanship." Vince never pushed his son, though. "I just wanted to teach Jimbo correct work habits, and riding was the only trade I knew. It was like a plumber teaching his boy plumbing because he knows it, not necessarily because he wants his boy to be a plumber."
Jimbo became supple and muscled, a genuine athlete who just happened to be small. He hit .500 in Little League, starred in basketball and ran a record two-mile in high school. "His father wouldn't let him play football," Mrs. Bracciale says, "but the wrestling moved him up to everything." He won the 107-pound class state championship and had offers from most of the country's top wrestling colleges.
His parents said, "It is up to you, Jimbo, what you want to do with your life." Having never had a college man in the family, they probably preferred that he go on in school. A visit to the University of Iowa campus helped make up his mind. "We're a close family," Jimbo says. "We always did a lot of things together. I mean, like, my father and me, we'd even go get haircuts together. A father and son that's close—that can go a long way." So he would be a rider like his father. Anyway, he asked, "How far can I get in college? I'd just end up a phys ed teacher."
Three months after he graduated from Charles Town High, Jimbo was tearing up the local tracks, and many horsemen urged Vince to rush him to the big time. But Vince kept Jimbo at home. "You get more experience out of a bullring like these tracks than at the milers," he says. "It's like playing sandlot ball in a coal mine town. After that, anything is easier. The only way you can learn to ride in traffic in the afternoon is to ride in traffic in the afternoon." Vince did not make a move until he heard one day that Vaonakis was available. He asked Vaonakis to come up Down Below.
One look was all Vaonakis needed. "He was so cool, riding them muskrats around them elbows," he remembers. Before Jeanette could feed him, Vaonakis told Vince, "Tell Jimbo to pack his tack." And the two of them left for Garden State almost immediately. "Some of the first horses we got on there just jumped right up and ran a good race for us," Jimbo recalls in the third person plural common to jockeys. "The stewards were eyeing me real close 'cause I still had the bug," says Vaonakis, "and after I win a couple, they give me days."
For all his early success, few people yet know how to pronounce Bracciale's name. It is Brah-chelly, and it will be learned. Now 20, Jimbo will gross something like $300,000. Potentially he is the best U.S. jockey since Willie Shoemaker and Bill Hartack appeared a quarter of a century ago and is more articulate than the one, more genial than the other. He is, in fact, a beguiling fellow, properly shy and polite, even candid.
He is not particularly record-conscious. While Hawley has been charging all over North America picking up mounts seven days a week this fall, Bracciale has kept his usual schedule, spending most of his spare time in his apartment in Laurel, Md., with his wife Terri, who was his high school sweetheart, and their 1-year-old daughter Lori.
While he will not extend himself for the record, there have been occasions this year when Bracciale has risen early and mucked out a friend's stable and walked the horses. It is said that at any track where he appears, he is not only the best jockey there but also the best groom. Unlike other riders, Bracciale sees the personalities of horses, not only their gears and pistons. Days, even weeks after riding a horse, he can recognize it, and it does not seem that he can pass one by without reflexively reaching out to pat it. "You have to have feelings for horses because they're trying," he says. "Like, I like fillies the best because it seems to me they try harder. In the morning I'd almost rather work on a horse than ride him—get into him, rub him down, put his bandages on. Maybe he gets to like you, and he puts out for you just a little more in the afternoon."
Vaonakis descends into the suburbs of bathos whenever the subject of his I comes up. "I admire this kid so much," he says. "One in a million. But understand, I wouldn't tolerate it if I seen it startin' to go to his head. What do I need with that situation? I'd look for someone else to put up with me. I don't worry about jockeys anymore. I did well with almost every one of them I had, and as long as I can talk I can hold a job. When I got a Dear John from Smiley Cusimano after waitin' five weeks for him to heal from the injury he had acquired, I just said, 'O.K., Smiley, I been fired by them 10 times better'n you.'
"Now, Howard Grant. When Howard let me go, that hurt. I'd gotten him Down Below when he still had his bug and was with some outfit out of Ohio, and we went right to the top together, right to the races. Besides, I was like his guardian, his adviser. And then, right before that Christmas at Pimlico, he calls me in and says, 'Steve, maybe we ought to make a change.' I'd felt personal blows before, but none like this. I came close to bawling. They'll never be another one hurt me like Howard did.
"I know jockeys now. A good portion of them are spoiled primas. They'll loaf on you, triangle you. They're 4'8" and think they're 7'3". Although I rely on them to make a good living, I despise the way so many of them individuals conduct themselves."
For whatever boy he is handling, though, Vaonakis is indefatigable. "The Greek's always hustling and he's probably got the best phone book in racing," one horseman says. "But the thing that really makes that bubble belly is you cannot embarrass him, you cannot shame him. He'll be back at you about Jimbo."
Vaonakis starts buttonholing trainers on the backstretch at five or six a.m. and keeps it up all day, only shifting his base of operations to the general area of the racing secretary's office and then to the racetrack dining room. After the major luncheon crush the maitre d' will look the other way, and the top agents will grab a free table or get invited to sit in with high rollers where they can also cadge some free rolls or the saltines wrapped in cellophane as they watch their I's ride. "I break good," Vaonakis will say. "That four come right over on me, but now I'm movin' good.... I'm going to put you away, Bobby.... I'll daylight these muskrats.... There, that's three I win today."
Sheer visibility is one factor in an agent's success, but the prime ingredient is his ability to divine the condition book. Vaonakis always carries his in his back pocket, next to his comb, and it has as much meaning to him as Sam Ervin's omnipresent U.S. Constitution. Often Vaonakis knows before the trainer what horse will fit into what race. He is a master, too, at withholding what is known as "first call"—the commitment to ride—until he has examined all the riding vacancies.
Because Bracciale is so good, most new trainers are delighted when Vaonakis approaches them and introduces himself: "I'm Bracciale." A few trainers will not ride Bracciale, however, because they are trying to cash a big bet on their horse, and Bracciale is bad for that business, as any horse he is named on comes down a point or two on the board. Other trainers might try to triangle Vaonakis—that is, give Bracciale the mount on one half of an entry, then scratch Bracciale's horse at the last minute, getting Bracciale out of the race and upping the price on the remaining horse. "Common," is how Vaonakis labels this ploy. "But you got to take a lot of stuff to be successful in this business," he sighs.' 'No matter what happens with any particular individual, you cannot ever afford to hold a grudge."
Vaonakis happened into the profession in 1950 when he was 22 and laid off from the steel mills in Wheeling. "It's a scenic town, but not what you call beautiful," he explains. "Guys being shot all the time, too," he says as an afterthought. The son of a barber and eldest of five, Vaonakis hustled newspapers as a boy at the Wheeling track, which was distinguished mostly by its cheap horses and a proclivity for burning down regularly. Later, when he was going to college, he worked summers there, but he never thought of a racetrack career until he was out of work and hanging around a luncheonette. Impressed with Vaonakis' persuasive personality, a Cuban jockey named Chico Miralles said, "Hey, Steve, why you no take my book?"
"I got the hang of the profession right away, so I went through the additional formalities," Vaonakis says. "I liked the socializing, the fraternizing. It just bolstered and enlightened me being around them particular people."
In those days he made $3 a ride, but when he picked up Grant's book in 1957 he left the halfers for the big time—"a new Caddy every year, making the scene in New York every chance." Since Grant "terminated the affiliation," it has been a roller coaster ride, up and down with a mixed pride of jockeys. Now he may be set. Turf and Sport Digest already rates Bracciale as the sixth-best rider in the country, after only Laffit Pincay, Braulio Baeza, Shoemaker, Angel Cordero and Ron Turcotte, and many horsemen believe that Bracciale needs only a big horse to establish his national reputation. The one trainer who ever really put Bracciale down, Dickie Dutrow, regrets that 1972 decision now. "Jimbo cost me a lot of money then," Dutrow says, "but since I left him, I've lost a lot of money on him. He's a much better rider now. I never get mad at my money no more."
Dutrow's disaffection was a blessing in disguise because Vaonakis then gave regular first call to the stable of Johnny Tammaro, once a clever jockey. "Johnny is the one taught Jimbo to judge pace," Dutrow says. "Jimbo measures them now."
"He was dragging back horses too hard," Tammaro says. "Also, I tell Jimbo to keep thinking, take chances, because I'm not going to drop him for one little mistake and I'm not going to lock him into bad horses. His only problem is he still tends to get a little lethargic-like. Any other jock with a chance to beat Hawley would be hiring helicopters to catch every race all over, but Jimbo doesn't care. How do you figure?"
Perhaps it is simply that it has all come so naturally and easily for Bracciale that there has never been occasion for the doubts and disappointments that spawn the driving forces in others. Or maybe it is that he is still something of a man-child: husband and father, yet very much the boy. It did not seem strange to Bracciale that, living at home but already making a thousand or two a week, he would ask his father for a dollar walking-around money. More recently, like some moony adolescent girl, he had his father ship down to Laurel his old buddy, Bill, the stable pony. In the cynical environment of the track he is mature for his years but also guileless. He takes off his shoes and lays his feet up on some racetracker's dashboard, as any kid might do, and the whisper goes out that he is common, that success is going to his head. He is cheap or a show-off, depending on how fast he moves to pick up a check, and horseplayers bet him down to 6-5 on a 3-1 shot, then rake him with boos if the ersatz favorite misses by a nose.
None of this, apparently, bothers Bracciale. "I feel no different now," he says. "I live about the same as I always did—a few more clothes, eat out a little more. I have a Lincoln instead of a Coronet." Vince says he has not changed. "What's Jimbo going to get big-headed for? He's a born racetracker, and he understands all this."
"One time, he's only 18/19, Jimbo wins a picture for me," Dutrow says. "He explains to me how, when he comes into the stretch, this one patch of shade hits him, so he steers the horse right down that shade path while the others are fighting off the sun. Now where's a boy his age get off knowing a thing like this?"
"Jimbo was trying things the first week he was riding that most boys don't even know after six months," Vince says. "He was switching his stick that first week."
"Ah, he could switch sticks when he was on his hobbyhorse," Mrs. Bracciale says.
Bracciale does have a reputation as an outstanding left-handed hitter. "That's a big plus," he says. "I probably got the left from wrestling. In wrestling you need balance, gotta work both sides."
"Probably 95% of your horses never really feel anything but the right-handed whip," Vaonakis interjects. "What exercise boy can hit left-handed? And very few jocks."
"After awhile," Bracciale says, "you can sense that a horse gets to resent the right-hand whip. Not only won't he respond, he'll get mad at it."
"Familiarity breeds contempt," Vaonakis explains.
"Then he feels that left-hand whip," Bracciale says, brightening, "and you can tell he's saying, 'Hey, what's this? What's going on? Let me get out of here!' And he sparks up and punches for you."
One night not long ago Bracciale went back to Charles Town to ride in The Mountaineer Stakes, a $25,000 race, one of the richest in West Virginia. Vaonakis, claiming "I'm getting too old to go Down Below," sent his close friend Ed Watson to chauffeur his I, and they were joined by Tidewater Benjie, a familiar exacta player whose speech rivals Vaonakis'. This, in part, is Benjie's report, dictated into a tape recorder:
No sooner had Jimbo arrived than various members of the regular element began to inquire where The Greek was keeping hisself. "Home, listening to the results, and then at the bank if we win it," Jimbo replies in a comic vein. Steve and Jimbo will simulate kidding one another just this way.
Jimbo's father and lovely mother are situated at a choice location in the dining room where they can witness the card. Jimbo's two older sisters have married and departed the Greater Charles Town area, but his little sister Tina, who is nine and just some kind of beautiful youngster, has accompanied her parents this particular evening. It was as recent as 1970 that Jimbo would baby-sit with Tina on the nights when his mother was selling mutuels and his father was attending to the horses he conditioned. At post time over at Shenandoah, Jimbo and little Tina would get out of the trailer, and then they would scamper across the parking lot, past your Valet Parking sign to where the chute for the sprints is situated. The two of them little individuals would be happy just to watch the horses break. Of course, they could not wager. "Then," Jimbo relates to me, "we would run back and watch TV till the next post." Imagine, the nation's leading reinsman performing these chilhood antics less than four short years ago!
The star-studded feature, The Mountaineer Stakes, has attracted entries from as far away as Belmont, and it does not look at all good for Jimbo. He is on Lexington Park, a speed horse, but he draws the 11 post and he is assigned the heaviest impost in the race. This is, between you and I, the real reason I believe Steve doesn't come up Down Below. "Making me carry 126 around them elbows," he protests to me. "This is like me having to carry the Brooklyn Bridge." But Lexington Park is what you call your honest campaigner, a refugee from the claiming ranks, and Jimbo punches him right out on top. He has only got an eighth of a mile to the turn, but Jimbo has him on the lead there, and he just daylights the field the rest of the way—or moonlights it, as you might accurately be required to say under these nocturnal conditions.
After much folderol in the winner's circle, Jimbo is able to get down, and his mom hugs him for joy. Jimbo weighs in and returns for pictures, and then his mom inquires of him, "Did you remember to weigh in?" Just like she was inquiring of some youngster did he brush his teeth. This is your leading jockey in the United States.
"Yes, Mom, I did that already," he relates, and thereupon he puts his one arm around his mom and his other around his pretty little sister, and they walk off that way. As you can see, Jimbo's hat size is still the same as ever, and this also applies equally to The Greek he is affiliated with around all the various ovals.
That concludes Benjie's report.
UP AND TYPICALLY AHEAD, TOP U.S. RIDER BRACCIALE SCANS THE FIELD BEHIND HIM AS HE DRIVES HOME ANOTHER WINNER