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."