- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
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."