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Johnny Bev is looking for one last score. Only this time he swears he'll give some of it back to charity. In December Johnny will be 75. Last year he went into Mount Sinai for heart bypass surgery, but that doesn't appear to have slowed him down.
Today he's dressed in white linen. A rakish Panama hat is cocked on a full head of hair dyed a potent black, like a Colt .38. He's not the high roller he used to be, but as Bev happily relates, he still loves the ladies -- as long as they're younger than he is.
Over the course of his life, Johnny amassed and squandered a small fortune, a couple of million dollars, he estimates, much of it ill-gotten gains from the shady side of thoroughbred horseracing. For more than 35 years, he worked the tracks from Canada to Miami as a corrupt jockey and horse owner, mostly for the mob, or more accurately, the syndicate (multiethnic crime combinations).
"I was an international race fixer," Bev boasts proudly.
During his years in the high life, Bev drank Tom Collinses with Frank Sinatra; took Alan Ladd's costar in The Blue Dahlia, Veronica Lake, dancing at the Fontainebleau; ensured winners for famed wiseguy financier Meyer Lansky; and owned stakes in Miami eateries, an Italian restaurant in Hialeah and a steak house on Collins Avenue. He also claims to have shared an opal mine in Mexico with a Mexican Army general: "I was the only jockey in the world with a mink saddle, diamond-studded whip, and gold stirrups," he boasts.
Bev's heyday came in the late Forties and Fifties, when he estimates that about 75 percent of horseracing was fixed. Lots of people were getting a piece of the action, including Johnny: "Everybody is crooked," he philosophizes, in a nasal voice. "You give them $5000, they are going to kiss you."
He rigged the results of hundreds of races, or so he claims. (Checking verifies some of Johnny's story, but he operated in the predigital age, and in a field where vagueness was considered simple good manners, records are spotty.) He never spent more than a night or two in jail, but today his passion for the Sport of Kings is largely off-limits; he's persona non grata at local tracks like Calder Race Course on the Miami-Dade-Broward line, and Gulfstream Park in Hallandale, and he is totally banned in Canada.
Still, Johnny claims no regrets. No guilty conscience. No sins to atone for. "All that money we made went up in smoke, but we had a good time," he says. "Wine, women, and song -- show me a better game, and I'll follow you."
Some of the hard living and good times remain etched on his face in heavy furrows across his brow and deep crow's feet branching from his eyes. His hands are dark with liver spots. Bev's features seem slightly off-kilter on his slight five-foot-three frame: large ears, a beak nose, and, oddly for a small man, gangly arms and legs.
His home is a basic first-floor studio in North Beach. The shades are seldom cracked, and the old furniture looks beaten, victim of a thousand rough nights. His most cherished possessions are his fantastic and wonderful tales of a time of plenty and glamour, the youthful highlife of the Forties and Fifties, when Miami Beach's "beach-boy culture" -- Murph the Surf and Alan Dale Kuhn, the "movie star" jewel thieves and their molls -- held sway in places like Happy's Stork Bar on the 79th Street Causeway.
It's still morning, but he hopefully offers a drink. Then he makes his pitch. He's got an agent. If he can interest someone in his life story -- maybe a book and movie deal would follow. He's already done the figures, lovingly counting the millions that await him. In the movie, he'd prefer to be played by Al Pacino.
"There has never been a jockey who admitted he was a thief," he says. "A good title [for the book] would be I Confess, I Was a Crooked Jockey."
Johnny Bev came into the world as Angelo Bevelacqua, born in Attleboro, Massachusetts, on December 20, 1926, the child of Sicilian immigrants who owned a clothing and jewelry store. He discovered his calling when the family doctor hired him as a stable boy. He started racing at county fairs in Massachusetts around 1942.
That same year he Americanized his name to John Bev so it would fit on racing forms and took to peddling himself as a jockey from California. He needed to win 44 races in order to qualify as a full jockey, and so he moved to Providence, Rhode Island, to ride at Pascoag Race Track. The Patriarca family, the Mafia lords of New England who operated out of Federal Hill in Providence, did business at the track. They approached Bev to fix races, but he refused for fear he'd lose his apprenticeship. Instead the gangsters bought off the other jockeys, who would "pull" their mounts (rein them in) and let Johnny win.
It wasn't long after his 44th race that he started taking dives himself.