When Lori Fisher was hired as the curator of collections at the National Museum of Racing last summer, there was no mention that her new position would involve intrigue, amateur sleuthing, and solving a mysterious 50-year-old theft.
Yet, before completing the second full month of her career at the museum in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., Fisher had played a central role in the recovery of the silver trophy won by the legendary Seabiscuit in the 1938 Agua Caliente Handicap in Mexico. The trophy and three Buick racing trophies were not returned to family of Seabiscuit's owner, Charles S. Howard, in California in the early 1950s when they were sent out with others for cleaning.
At a press conference in the museum's Hall of Fame Room June 27, Fisher was honored by the FBI and the city of Saratoga Springs for her work on the case.
The trophy was formally donated to the museum by Col. Michael Howard, great-grandson of Charles Howard, and will become part of the permanent collection. It will be on view in the "The Legend of Seabiscuit" exhibit through Dec. 15.
Moments after being contacted at the museum Aug. 17 by a woman living in the state of Washington offering the trophy for sale for $25,000, Fisher and four other members of the staff started collecting what turned out to be important details. Though she was new to the museum (she started work July 9), Fisher had recently read Laura Hillenbrand's best-seller, "Seabiscuit: An American Legend." By coincidence, Fisher sat next to Howard at a museum function at a Saratoga Springs restaurant Aug. 5.
"While we were out to dinner, I mentioned this story to Lori," Howard said. "It was just the right timing. A couple off weeks later, when this gal approached Lori, she remembered that evening when I had shared the story with her. It was meant to happen."
Fisher was hurrying to an appointment on that busy Friday morning when a museum employee said a woman in the lobby was asking to speak with her. The woman got right to the point.
"As soon as I heard it was the Agua Caliente trophy, I knew it was stolen," Fisher said. "I did what my first instinct was, to get as much information as I could about her and keep her there and make another contact point for later on so that we wouldn't lose anything until the police could get in on it."
By the time she called Saratoga Springs police, Fisher knew the woman's name, what hotel she was staying at, credit card data from a purchase at the museum and what car she was driving. Police put the woman under surveillance, but did not approach her because she told Fisher the trophy was on the West Coast.
Through telephone conversations in the following two weeks, Fisher succeeded in convincing the woman to send the trophy to the museum to be authenticated prior to the proposed purchase.
"Lori Fisher performed admirably during the negotiation stage of this investigation, directly resulting in the recovery of the Agua Caliente Handicap trophy," said Lieut. Edward Moore of the Saratoga Springs police department. "Without her, I don‚t think we could have done this."
The New York State Police and the FBI took part in the 10-month investigation. Tom McClenaghan, assistant special agent-in-charge of the Albany, N.Y., office, said the FBI was able to track possession of the trophy back to the 1970s but could not determine who was responsible for the theft.
No arrests were made, and the woman who offered the trophy to the museum was not identified because the statute of limitations had run out and law enforcement officials said it was impossible to prosecute the case.
Fisher remembers being stunned when the package with the trophy came in the mail on Aug. 31.
"It was a very exciting moment, the day it arrived," Fisher said. "There was disbelief that she actually sent it. Even when she told me she sent it, you don't know what to believe. You don't know whether she was just saying it and she was going to blow you off and you won't be able to talk to her again."