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.