Earlier this month, one Eugene Zeek was headed off by racing authorities in the Thistledown parking lot as he tried to gain admittance to the Cleveland track.
Once a man without a country, Zeek is now a trainer without a race track, and the Thistledown incident is just another episode in his life on the run--a life that began when the husky horseman stung three Eastern race tracks with more than $1 million in bad checks--he eventually served time--then fled to the 133-square-mile island of Grenada on New Year's Eve of 1973.
Also aboard Zeek's chartered Lear jet on that Caribbean exodus were Karl Korte, a jockey who, riding mostly Zeek's horses, had become one of the leading riders at Penn National near Harrisburg, Pa.; Dominick (Dickie) Pallato, a New York restaurateur who was implicated in the 1972 assassination of mobster Joey Gallo; and Julie Mueller, who reportedly had posed as Zeek's wife at Penn National.
Korte maintains that he was forced to make that trip and blames Zeek for ruining his career.
In 1977, Pallato was found dead in three feet of water in his Grenada swimming pool, a drowning that local police said was "due to a cramp."
Zeek and Korte were thrown out of Grenada in 1978, in the aftermath of a government coup, and Korte finally returned to the U.S. in 1985. Earlier this year, Florida's racing commission issued him a jockey's license. After riding for several weeks at Gulfstream Park in the Miami area, he also got a Maryland license and is now part of the jockey colony at Pimlico in nearby Baltimore.
Now 53, Korte was brought back into the game by Bill Donovan, a Maryland trainer credited with developing Lost Code into one of the top handicap horses in the country.
One recent morning, after galloping some horses for Donovan, Korte sat in the backstretch kitchen at Laurel Race Course, recalling the palmy days and the years on the lam with Zeek. Somebody said that the whole story sounded like something off the pages of a Dick Francis novel. But if Francis, the former English jockey, had ever written the Zeek tale, his editors would have rejected it as implausible.
According to Korte, he was forced to go to Grenada with Zeek and Pallato because if he had stayed behind, they were certain that, under pressure, he would eventually tell authorities and mobsters where they had gone. Besides his problems with banks and three race tracks--Penn National, Laurel and Liberty Bell near Philadelphia--over the bad checks, Zeek was also being sought by the federal government for tax evasion.
Korte was estranged from his wife, who was living in New Jersey with their 12-year-old daughter at about that time. Korte said that he was told by Zeek that the girl would be in danger if he didn't accompany the trainer and Pallato to Grenada.
"I was a prisoner," Korte said. "I was in a prison paradise. When we got to Grenada, Zeek was paying all of our bills. When we left Miami, all the money, in $100 and $50 bills, was stuffed into a big blue suitcase. In Grenada, Zeek and his girlfriend hid the money in the linings of their clothes.
"But after we were there for three months, Zeek and I had an argument. He threw me out of the house, but there was still no way I was going to be able to leave the country. Zeek had said that we would only have to stay there for six months. But the day after I was thrown out, two guys from New York just happened to show up, and I knew that none of us was going anywhere."
Pallato, according to Korte, married a secretary of Eric Gairy, then Grenada's prime minister. Korte also said that Zeek and Gairy became fast friends, enabling the fugitive trainer to start several businesses, including chartered fishing boats, a discotheque and a duty-free shop. Grenada had declared its independence from Great Britain and had no extradition treaty with the United States.
Korte said that Zeek twice tried to kill him while they were in Grenada, but wouldn't discuss details.
The 57-year-old Zeek declined to be interviewed, but his son, Jeffrey, who trains horses at Thistledown, talked on the telephone.
"Karl Korte is just hunting for publicity," Jeffrey Zeek said. "He was once a hell of a race rider, and it's a shame he's bitter. Nobody twisted his arm to go to Grenada, nobody put a rope around his neck.
"I visited my father once there, and you have to understand that these are the memories of a 14-year-old boy. But for someone who says now that he was a captive, Karl Korte looked like he was having a hell of a time while I was there.
"My father has paid his debt to society (a 2-year prison term) and now he'd like to get back to training horses. If people keep bringing up what he did, it will get to be like folklore, like Jesse James and (John) Dillinger."
Dillinger robbed banks, Eugene Zeek just bilked them. He befriended a New Jersey banker, set him up with a few winners at the track, and eventually the bank was sitting on large checks for as long as 30 days, remembers Bob Bork, the general manager of Philadelphia Park who was the controller at Liberty Bell in the early 1970s. Bork says that the tracks recovered most of their money from the Zeek scam after taking the New Jersey bank to court.
Zeek, who worked in the construction business before he entered racing, was once described by a friend as a "charming minor league hustler." He trained cheap horses, and loved to cash bets on them more than winning the races.
Once a man bought a horse through Zeek because the trainer told him he was ready to run. Months later, the horse still hadn't started and the owner had paid $3,000 in training bills. He said that if Zeek had really given the horse all the vitamins that were on his bill, "I would have owned the healthiest horse in America."
During the summer of 1970, Zeek cashed valid personal checks at Liberty Bell totaling $180,000. Reportedly, Zeek was being paid $350 a week as a runner for big gamblers.
When the Penn National track opened in 1972, Zeek was there with a string of horses and almost daily he began cashing checks for as much as $10,000. When Zeek's checks failed to clear the bank and he was confronted by racing officials, he reached into his pocket, pulled out a thick wad of bills and made restitution on the spot.
By 1973, Zeek was cashing checks for as much as $40,000 a day. During a 2-week period in December of that year, he cashed 29 checks, ranging from $13,000-$15,000. Liberty Bell and Laurel were also cashing checks for him.
Korte says that Zeek was making $250,000 a year as a trainer when they were winning all those races at Penn National.
"He was always late paying his taxes, and the government would always accept that," Korte said. "But then when they found out that he hadn't even filed in several years, they were really after him. That's why he said he had to leave the country."
Korte was living with Zeek in a house near Penn National when Pallato moved in. Pallato owned an interest in a horse Zeek trained, and Korte says that Zeek told him Pallato was trying to run away from his wife.
"Then some of Gallo's boys started coming around the track," Korte said. "They were carrying pieces (guns). I knew that there was something more involved here than a wife."
Korte said that after Zeek had thrown him out in Grenada, he worked as a fishing scuba diver. After the overthrow of Gairy's regime, Korte left and worked for several years as a deckhand and bosun's mate in the Virgin Islands, Europe and Spain.
"I was broke, I had to get back on my feet," Korte said.
In 1985, he returned to the United States and tried to get back into racing.
John Shumacher, the former president of Penn National, used to become almost apoplectic whenever he told the story.
"They were going to let this guy back in," Shumacher said. "The only thing over his head was that the stewards fined him $50 the night he left, for not honoring his mounts. When he mailed the $50 to the Jockeys' Guild in New York, they paid Pennsylvania, which said that that left him in good standing."
In New York, however, authorities denied Korte a license as an exercise rider because of his association with Zeek, who was described as an undesirable. But when the door opened in Pennsylvania, Florida and Maryland didn't attempt to close it.
Now, however, the door in Pennsylvania is closed again.
"I had a chance to ride a horse there for Bill (Donovan) not too long ago," Korte said. "The track told me not to come. They said that what happened happened there, and people are still mad. They said that there might be trouble, and the track didn't want to be responsible."
When Korte called Delaware Park to see if he could ride a horse there recently, he was also told to stay home.
"I don't understand it, but I'm going along with it," Korte said. "I don't want to make any waves. I've been led to believe that I'll be able to get licensed in New Jersey, when Bill Donovan moves his horses to Monmouth Park this summer."
Korte says he has not seen or talked to Zeek since they were ordered out of Grenada 10 years ago.
"The courts here told Zeek that he wasn't supposed to talk to me again," Korte said. "I wouldn't want to talk to him, anyway. I'm afraid if I saw him, I'd use a baseball bat on both of his legs.
"Because of him, I didn't see my daughter for 11 years. When I wrote to her from Grenada, her mother wouldn't let her see the letters. I had no reason to leave the (U.S.) when I did. I was one of the leading riders in Pennsylvania. I had been promised a steward's job there when I retired.
"How much money did he cost me? Now I have nothing, and I need mounts and money. Zeek did time in a prison that was like a country club, and I know he's still got most of the money. I can't afford any insurance, I have a car that's got 90,000 miles on it, I'm living in a motel and I'm making just enough to pay the bills."
Korte looks strong, though. He has taken care of himself. He rode two winners at Gulfstream Park and has had a couple at Pimlico, where he was the leading rider when he was only 24.
In years, his experience with Zeek is well behind him.
"But he's still costing me," Korte said. "It's because of him that I can't get licensed now in Pennsylvania and Delaware."