"I Rode for Lansky"

Miami Beach's premier crooked jockey reminisces

Running crooked races apparently took as much practice as riding them straight. In 1946 Johnny's horse, One Meatball, was supposed to come in dead last: "Try and make a horse be last," comments Bev dryly. "It's tough enough to get one to win!"

Pascoag's half-mile track had a sharp elbow to it. Not far out of the gate, Bev started to "pull" the reins on his horse to take him to the back. But as the pack galloped into the turn, the lead horse bolted out to the side, cutting off the rest of the riders and forcing them toward the outside rail. "The other horses had nowhere to go but the fence," says Bev. "Before you know it, I'm in the front."

He tried to pull his horse back but there was no way to stop his victory. The enraged owner, who had paid to fix the race, stormed into the winner's circle and punched Bev in the eye, knocking off his jockey cap. Out from Johnny's hat fell two hundred-dollar bills, his take for the fix, which were soon scooped up by laughing bettors.

Johnny Bev: Will Pacino play him in the movie?
Steve Satterwhite
Johnny Bev: Will Pacino play him in the movie?

"How do ya like that?" says Bev, sticking out his bony arms for the oft-told punch-line climax. "The guy beat the crap out of me for winning!"

In 1947 a chance meeting on an airplane gave him his first in to the upper echelons of national crime. On a flight from Miami to Chicago, a man noticed him reading the Racing Form. The gentleman introduced himself as a well-connected lawyer from Chicago named Abe Teitlebaum. He figured Bev for a jockey. When he learned Johnny would be riding in Chi, he offered to bet $200 for him. The horse won and a partnership began.

Teitlebaum had a Miami Beach Pine Tree Drive estate, but he did his lawyering in the Midwest, mostly for Al Capone. Five years later, along with Jimmy "Blue Eyes" Alo, Sam Giancana, Frank Sinatra, and Meyer Lansky, he would share a stake in the Sands Casino in Las Vegas.

Capone's lawyer proffered an introduction to Lansky for Bev. The "mob's accountant," as Lansky was known, hung out at the Singapore Hotel in Bal Harbour, and Bev would see him walking his Shih Tzu, Bruzzer, there: "He didn't look like a gangster, but he had a lot of power," remembers the jockey. "He was a little guy like me."

Lansky had fifteen horses in Tampa that he wanted Bev to ride and win -- every time.

"[Riding for Meyer] I broke more bookkeepers than you have hairs on your head," Bev remembers, laughing (because Lansky didn't lose).

Bev successfully fixed 25 races at Sunshine Park in Tampa in 1948.

He would go to the jockeys and hand out between $300 and $500 per rider from a candy box he carried. To a man, the jockeys would "pull" their horses.

"Eight horses in the race. Go to seven jockeys. Put mine in front," Bev explains pragmatically.

In order to signal the fix was on to Lansky's intermediary, Bev would come out on the veranda with a cigar. "No cigar," he says, "no go."

On the 26th race they fixed that season, Johnny's horse fell and broke its leg. Lansky's people demanded their $2000 bribe money back. But Bev, of course, had already spread it around, and the other jockeys had done their jobs.

"Lansky sent a message: I would look funny racing without legs," he says.

Bev paid Lansky out of his own pocket, but his troubles weren't over. One morning, two large individuals with guns, driving a big black car, came to see him. They were Augustine "Primo" Lazarra's men from nearby Ybor City. Apparently the boss, Big P, as Bev remembers him, had been betting and losing, without knowing about Lansky's fix.

Johnny remembers Big P as a "seven-footer."

"He gave me a slap and down I go," Bev recalls.

"You are fixing races in my back yard!" shouted Big P. "I didn't know I was betting on stiffs!

"You tell Lansky, you're working for me, not him," the mobster insisted.

Now Bev had a serious problem. "I couldn't work for both of them. I said to myself, ďLet me get out, before they shoot me.'"

Bev told his girlfriend not to bother to pack, and they split for Jamaica. When they came back a couple of months later, Bev went straight to Detroit, where he rode three winners in fixed races. Each time he gave notice to Lansky and Big P. "They left me alone after that," he says.

Since Miami was a hot spot for gambling, and horseracing in particular, Bev spent much of his time in South Florida. It was in the steam room at the Fontainebleau, trying to lose weight, that he got to know Frank Sinatra.

"He was thinner than me," remembers Johnny, "and bald."

Bev struggled constantly to keep his jockey weight down, taking laxatives and Benzedrine when he couldn't bribe the clerk of the scales at the track to let him pass.

Sinatra would front Bev to fix races at the now-defunct Tropical Park race track on Bird Road.

"He had a guy called Rocky who would give me money to fix the races," Bev claims.

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