The theft occurred in 1952-1953, when Marcela Howard, widow of Seabiscuit's owner Charles S. Howard, sent numerous trophies to be cleaned before she moved to a new home. When the newly cleaned trophies were unpacked, four of them -- including the Agua Caliente trophy and three Buick auto racing trophies-were discovered to be missing. Marcela filed a stolen property report with the local police, but the trophies were never found.
In 1992 Col. Michael Howard, great-grandson of Charles Howard, received a mysterious phone call offering to sell him the four missing trophies. He contacted police and set up a meeting but the seller vanished. In May 2001, Laura Hillenbrand, author of the best-seller "Seabiscuit: An American Legend," noticed the Agua Caliente trophy for sale on e-bay. When Hillenbrand notified the seller that the trophy was potentially stolen property, the trophy was promptly pulled from the site. Again, the seller and trophy disappeared.
In August 2001, a woman visiting the National Museum of Racing spoke with Lori Fisher, curator of collections, to see if the museum would like to purchase the trophy. Realizing that it was one of the four missing Howard trophies, Fisher notified the Saratoga Springs Police Department.Following consultation among Col. Howard, Fisher, and Lt. Edward Moore of the City Police, Fisher agreed to assist police and began pursuing negotiations to purchase the trophy for the museum. Meanwhile, surveillance of the woman was undertaken by several City Police Investigators, assisted by three New York State Police Investigators from the Saratoga station. The surveillance and continuing investigation by City Police over the next four days revealed that further investigation and interviews on the West Coast would be necessary, and the City Police requested assistance from the FBI.
Acting under guidance from the FBI and local police, Fisher continued to pursue the purchase of the trophy for the museum. After days of intense negotiations, the seller shipped the trophy to the museum for review prior to completing the "sale." Once the trophy arrived, the FBI confiscated it and conducted a thorough investigation. The U.S. Attorney recently concluded that the trophy rightfully belongs to the Howard family heirs. No one has been prosecuted for the original theft of the trophy, and the three stolen Buick trophies have not been recovered.
According to Tom McClenaghan, assistant special agent-in-charge of the FBI office in Albany, "We are pleased to have had the opportunity to provide assistance to the museum and the Saratoga Springs Police Department in this important recovery. Naturally, inasmuch as the theft occurred 50 years ago, any chance of prosecution for the theft would be impossible. The important point is that the trophy has been returned to the Howard family and, through their generosity, to the National Museum of Racing."
Lt. Moore credits the success of this investigation to the actions of Fisher: "Because of steps taken by Lori and other museum staff, crucial information was gathered at the onset of the investigation. Lori's continued efforts in negotiations with the seller over the first two weeks was the single most significant reason that the stolen trophy was recovered and returned to the Howard family."
The large sterling silver trophy was made in 1864-65 by R. & S. Garrard & Co., the noted London silversmiths. As was common at the time, the piece was reborn as a trophy for the 1938 Agua Caliente Handicap, held in Tijuana, Mexico. "We are very grateful that the Howard family has decided to donate the trophy to the museum," said Fisher. "This important piece of racing history could have been lost forever, and now we have the privilege of preserving it for future generations of racing fans."
The trophy will remain on view in the museum's exhibition The Legend of Seabiscuit through Dec. 15.