Only a fool can be trusted with the Holy Grail, and William “La-Tee” Braud meets all of the qualifications. In the early spring of 1977, Braud (a frequent patron of Santa Anita and Hollywood Park) knew with absolute clarity that Affirmed was going to win Thoroughbred horse racing’s Triple Crown. Unless you cross the line once in awhile, you will never know where it is, so Braud decided to go to each of the classic races and buy 50 $2 win tickets on Affirmed as collector items.
“I had never seen any of the other horses that were going to run and I didn’t care,” Braud said. “I knew Affirmed was going to win the Kentucky Derby (gr. I). Not only that, he was going to win the Triple Crown. In my mind it had already happened.”
Friends and family warned Braud that his quest would be a waste of time and money. They got their answer when Braud, footloose and fancy free, drove to Louisville with his friend Adam Weber in a borrowed car. The errant knights arrived Friday night before the big race and found refuge at a residence within walking distance of Churchill Downs.
“It looked like we had landed on the set of the Beverly Hillbillies, Braud remembered. “A guy in bib-overalls came out and told us that we could park for free, but it would cost $5 each to use the bathroom.”
Without a change of clothes, unable to shave or shower, Braud and his friend (on the eve of their first Kentucky Derby) slept in the car. As soon as the gates opened that Saturday morning, Braud went straight to the betting windows to buy his cluster of $2 win tickets on Affirmed. The teller balked and encouraged Braud to go to the $50 window. Braud stood firm, insisting the tickets were not meant to be cashed. “The guy looked at me like I was crazy. He just shook his head,” Braud recalled.
Braud concealed the tickets in a device called a “wallet sock” that he wore on his ankle and headed to the infield where he spent the day, drinking mint juleps with some nurses from a hospital in Chicago.
It was a journey without rest. Two weeks after Affirmed won the Kentucky Derby, Braud caught a flight from Los Angeles to Baltimore. He came to Pimlico with traveler’s checks that track management refused to cash. Running stop lights in a taxi cab, Braud dashed to the hotel and arrived back at the track with the necessary cash as the Preakness field was being saddled in the infield. A girl with a camera asked Braud if she could get up on his shoulders to take a picture at the finish line. “When Affirmed hit the wire first, I was so excited that I almost dropped her.”
Two down one to go. Braud’s money for travel expenses was getting tight. Finally, he and his wife scraped up enough cash for a trip to the Belmont Stakes (gr. I). “I got to feeling nervous about the whole thing,” Braud said. “I was still excited, but I didn’t know anybody in New York and the place can be intimidating.”
Good golly, Miss Molly. Braud watched the Belmont from a high roost in the upper grandstand. “I never saw two horses fight back at each other like Affirmed and Alydar,” Braud remembered. “Head and head all the way around the track. You couldn’t hear yourself think. Everybody was arguing about which horse had won, but I was watching their butts and I knew it was Affirmed.”
Thirty-two years later and the treasure of 150 win tickets and a track program from each of the 1977 Triple Crown events is preserved in air-tight packaging in a safety deposit box. Pride and prejudice.
“That was a tough act to follow. There will never be another Triple Crown winner in horse racing,” insisted Braud, who still watches the video replays of the duel between Affirmed and Alydar. “Those three races were the pinnacle of competition between two great horses, and you are not going to see it ever again.”
Fools rush in where wise men fear to tread. Last year Braud returned to his hometown in New Orleans to attend a Kentucky Derby party. Talking trash immediately upon arrival, Braud announced to the assembled group that the heavy favorite Big Brown would not finish in the money.
“I had to put some of that Creole voodoo on him,” Braud said. “Can’t happen. Affirmed was the last chapter in that book. I’m telling you, baby, let the good times roll.”