A Personal Narrative by Jill
I used to work at Penn National Race Course in Pennsylvania, and Eugene Zeek
was a trainer there. My husband and I had a free-lance "pony" business, and
we used to exercise Mr. Zeek's horses in the morning, and pony them to the
starting gate during the races.
He had the largest stable of horses on the race track at the time (1971 - 1974), and trained horses for joint owners Ms. [private] and Mr. [private], a very rich and elderly "couple".
Mr. Zeek was a very formidable character to me, and it made me nervous to be around him. I don't think he really approved of women working on the race track, but he tolerated me because my husband and I were very good at what we did, and
pretty much catered to his barn before our other clients.
Fortunately, he had an assistant trainer who ran the barn, so Mr. Zeek wasn't around too much. When he did show up, he always wore a suit and an overcoat, and kept his hands in his pockets, supposedly one hand on his gun and one hand on his money.... or so that was the assumption.
Pellato . . . suddenly showed up to work at Mr. Zeek's barn one morning . . . At the time he looked like he was perhaps in his early 40's or even younger. We were only told that his name was "Dickie", and though it was obvious that he had no experience with race horses, he was suddenly there and doing "idiot work" around the barn. He also liked to wear knit shirts, nice slacks and fancy shoes....something you would never see a horse person wearing in the barn area during morning training. Rumor had it that Zeek was hiding him out for the mob or something.
My husband and I got along with him [Pellato] great, and he was actually a pretty nice guy, and funny as hell. My family lived on Long Island (in NY), and every so often I would make a drive up to visit them. At least a couple of times, Dickie asked to catch a ride up with us, always leaving his car parked behind our
house in PA. We would drop him off at a corner in Chinatown, in Manhattan,
and he would give us a phone number to call when we were ready to head back
down to PA. We would pick him up on the same corner on the way home.
Of course we knew something fishy was up with that, but he seemed to be no
threat to us, and he gave us money for gas, so what the hell! Rumor had it
that he was the one who supplied the guns for some big mob hit that had
happened in NY on Italian-American day, but I never heard anything further
about that, and it was never verified.
Anyway, Mr. Zeek was not liked by most of the other trainers at that race
track, mostly because he was "in" with the racing secretary (who was himself
a very unscrupulous person).
You see, Zeek's owners (the rich elderly couple) bred their horses themselves, and they were all their "babies". They weren't in horse racing for the money, but for the glory of the win. Therefore, Zeek was able to drop good horses down into cheap claiming races and win many races. If the horse got claimed, the owners would just offer the trainer who claimed the horse a lot of money, and buy it back.
Also, because Zeek had no problem dropping horses into claiming races, the racing secretary would enter Zeek's horses in races himself, when he needed to fill the fields. This is actually highly illegal in the racing rules, but being a
fairly new racetrack, with no real organization among the horsemen yet, no
one could do anything about it. If a trainer opened their mouth, the racing
secretary would throw them (and their horse) off the track the next day!
All the while, as everyone thought Zeek was kissing management's ass, he was
setting them up for the kill.
The racing secretary was the only person who could "okay" having a personal
check cashed in the grandstand at the windows. Zeek began slowly having
checks "okayed" and then cashing them, and of course they always cleared.
Then he started asking the racing secretary if he could hold a cashed check
for a couple of days, promising to have it covered in time to clear. This
went on for many months, and the dollar amounts of the checks got bigger and
Then Zeek went to having checks held until the end of the month. He
always made sure that he covered the checks, so eventually the racing
secretary was comfortable about it and trusted him. He did this all for a
least a year before the big rip-off.
In the last month of his scheme, Zeek managed to cash checks in the amount of several hundred thousand dollars, promising to have them covered .... and then he took off, leaving the racing secretary holding a fistful of worthless checks. He also did this same scam at Garden State Race Track and Monmouth Race Track (both in NJ), plus Liberty Bell and Laurel tracks. From what we heard, he got away with over one million dollars.
When Zeek left, Karl Korte, the jockey who rode most of the horses went with him, and Dickie disappeared also. We heard that Zeek took his dogs with him. The woman who we all thought was his wife, actually wasn't, so I'm not sure if it was his wife, or the woman posing to be his wife, who traveled to Grenada with him.
Just before Mr. Zeek swindled all the money, he had run his account with us to almost $1000 dollars. My husband approached him in the paddock on day and asked him if he could cut us a check in the near future, as we really needed the money. He proceeded to pull a huge wad of cash from his pocket and counted out $1000 in twenties and handed it to my husband!
It was only two or three days later that he disappeared. We were the only ones that got paid by him before he took off. He stuck the feed man, tack store, blacksmith, and everyone else! We were never questioned directly by the FBI or any other authority, but for months afterwards I could tell that my mail was being tampered with. I guess it looked suspicious that we got paid, and no one else. I'm still not sure why he did pay us, because he could easily have blown us off.
Mr. Zeek was the talk of the race track for years to come. The trainers who once disliked him, then thought it was great the way he made a fool of the racing secretary (whom they disliked even more!).
Many years later, in 1984 or 85, I ran into Mr. Zeek again. I . . . had started transporting race horses up and down the east coast. I made a delivery to a farm near Ocala, FL one day. I was busy getting the ramp out to unload the horse, and I saw a gentleman in a tee-shirt and jeans walking down the drive towards my truck. I unloaded the horse and handed the lead shank to the man, and that's when I noticed he looked familiar.
I have to mention at this point, that I had never seen Zeek wearing anything but a suit and that damned overcoat, nor did I think he would ever be seen wearing anything else. So I said to this man in the tee-shirt and jeans, "You know, you look very much like a trainer I used to pony horses for."
With that, he turned to me and said "So how are you doing Jill?" I was amazed that he even remembered me, let alone remembered my name! I proceeded to tell him what a celebrity he had become at Penn National, but he clearly didn't want to discuss anything about the money scam. We walked the horse up to the barn, he went in and got me a check, and wished me well as I left, that's the last time I ever saw him.
Of course, there was a big black Cadillac parked near the barn, and several men in suits standing around. Would I have expected anything less?
Zeek Story 2