"I Rode for Lansky"

Miami Beach's premier crooked jockey reminisces

After Sinatra's nightly show, they would drink at a bar Bev had a piece of on 71st and Collins, called unimaginatively "the 71st Street Bar." Sinatra even chartered a yacht at one point and took Bev along as cook. "He liked my stuffed artichokes," says the jockey.

Through Sinatra Bev met stars who frequented the track, like Jackie Gleason, Martha Ray, and Veronica Lake. The latter he claims to have dated in the early Fifties for a few months. "She was a honey," he recalls. The relationship ended because of Lake's boozing. "She wanted to drink morning, noon, and night, but as a jockey I had to get up at 4:30 in the morning," he says. The Hollywood starlet died an alcoholic barmaid in 1973.

Everybody likes a winner and Bev was uncommonly lucky. He touted races to celebrities and mobsters alike, which, of course, is against the rules.

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

"If I give you a tip on a horse and you bet $200 to 300 for me, they call that ďtouting' at a race track," he explains. "I call it a turf advisor."

In Detroit Johnny fixed races for Jimmy Hoffa. In Miami he knew Cab Calloway and Nat King Cole. Bev rode horses for Louis Prima the bandleader and Fred Astaire. After the races people would come to the clubs on the 79th Street Causeway where Hollywood and the mob mixed, like the Bonfire, the Black Magic and the Closed Door.

"All the movie stars used to hang out there," he recalls. "These mobsters were good with their money. They spread it around."

He befriended the actor George Raft, a nightclub hoofer-turned-movie gangster who costarred in the original Scarface. One time Raft gave Bev a Rolls-Royce; the jockey tried unsuccessfully for a couple of months to sell it, but when the FBI came around asking questions, he gave it back to Raft.

In 1958 Bev received a 60-day suspension in Tampa when a fellow jockey ratted him out for "an unsatisfactory ride," officialese for a noticeable lack of effort. Ruled off the race track, Bev went into business in Mexico, but eventually the lure of the track pulled him back. Unfortunately, his long run of good fortune had started to turn.

By 1960 Bev had gone back to Canada to ride and fix horses. That year three jockeys signed affidavits at Fort Erie, saying they had received money from Johnny to "pull." He denied it and blamed the charges on the fact that Canadians hated Americans. "Of course, I gave them the money," he admits today.

The Mounties came for Johnny, escorted him to the border, and ordered him never to return. So Bev traveled to Bermuda, where the rules weren't so strict. In Bermuda, it was easier to "hop horses," slang for drugging the animals to run faster. "They didn't take no tests at Bermuda Downs," he says. The King's Game in Bermuda was too gentlemanly. Once a hopped horse Bev was riding won the race and then did a second lap around the track before it could slow down.

Bev was also proficient with the battery, an electrical device installed at the end of the whip to shock the horse into speeding up.

But age and increased vigilance on the part of racing authorities were catching up with Johnny. "[Today] at the small tracks there is still a little hanky-panky," he believes, "but for the big races the purses are so large, they now have cameras that can tell if you sneeze on a horse."

He tried his hand at a variety of get-rich schemes, including selling jewelry and counterfeit perfume. For a while he bought and sold shares in racehorses out of an office in Bal Harbour.

Then in 1974 Bev got someone to bet $200 for him on a race at Calder Race Course. The man won but refused to pay him, he says. "I told him I was going to Chicago to have dinner with the boys, and he better pay," recalls Bev. Instead the man went to the authorities and accused the former jockey of touting him.

That year Johnny went back to Calder and ended up in jail for a night because he wasn't supposed to be there. "I was arrested for trespassing, and I paid to get in!" he remarks.

On record at Calder, Bev is charged by the Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering with consorting and touting on July 12, 1985. The following year he was charged with failing to get a license when he retained part ownership in a horse he sold.

Today he is banned from the business he knows best. He can't set foot in South Florida's two largest tracks, Calder and Gulfstream. (Hialeah, which is independently owned, allows him to attend.) Although his larceny has dulled with age, his avarice is still pumping: "Money," he says. "With it you're something, without it you're nothing."

Only this time when he makes his pile, Bev promises he's got plans to use the money for social betterment. In particular, he wants to build a home for retired jockeys.

It's not hard to see why movie stars and mobsters might have enjoyed Johnny Bev's company for more than just the guaranteed wins. He can be a charmer, and his optimism is remarkable.

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