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.
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.
"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.
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.
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.
"If I give you a tip on a horse and you bet $200 to 300 for me, they call that touting' 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."
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.
He is on the phone in his apartment rounding up friends who can vouch for his crooked ways. One of them has come into some money recently, and wants to get back into racing as a trainer.
The man is understandably reluctant to talk about shady dealings for fear of jeopardizing his return, but Bev knows the powerful allure of the big score and just how to sell it:
"You'll get enough for horses from Maine to Spain," Johnny promises urgently. "We'll have girls with bikinis the size of Band-Aids!"
His friend protests on the other end.
"Well, if you don't like money," Bev says indignantly, "forget it!"
He cups the receiver and whispers confidentially: "He doesn't want to burn any bridges."
"I'm doing it with you or without you," he tells the friend.
"I'll be sure to invite you on my 150-foot yacht with the lovely señoritas that there is going to be. They are going to be a little old, like eighteen or nineteen. I know that would be too much for you."
Bev's cohort continues to resist.
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"Come on! You don't want to train horses and get up at 5:00 a.m., do you? Believe me, you won't get into trouble. The statute of limitations is long passed!"
But the conversation ends with the friend still unconvinced, and Johnny Bev, Eternal Optimist, finally hangs up.
He turns unfazed, and confidently promises that the guy will spill his stories eventually, just as Bev has done. "He's a big talker like me," Bev explains.