It is a lyrical summer morning near Chantilly, France: The early light comes dappling through a lacework of beech and lime and oak leaves. Beyond the trees, the mist still swirls about the wide expanse of grass they call Les Aigles, The Eagles. History hangs heavy here; in this forest the Princes of Condé hunted wild boar and stag. And those horsemen that break from a knoll on the far side of the clearing could, you fantasize, be vedettes of Napoleon's army, scouting the ground before some important battle.
The riders are lost in mist, emerge again, thunder down at full gallop—and the fantasy stops right there. Emblazoned on the back of the leading horseman's windbreaker are the words: THE BUNK-HOUSE CAFE, PIERRE, SOUTH DAKOTA. FINE FOODS AND COCKTAILS.
You are back to 1983, fast, standing in France's huge thoroughbred training center, owned by the Society for the Encouragement and Amelioration of Horse Species in France; its 618 acres, with 68 miles of sand training tracks and 59 miles of grass tracks, lie in Chantilly's ancient forest. This is the heart of the nation's thoroughbred industry, where more than 3,000 horses are quartered, the concern of more than 8,000 people. And that silver-haired man yelling Doucement! Doucement! (Take it easy!) to the riders is plainly one of them; a trainer, the redoubtable Francois Boutin.
Which, of course, still leaves the unbriefed stranger more than slightly disoriented. Why is the Bunkhouse Cafe, Pierre, S. Dak. flaunting itself just 24 miles north of the gastronomic capital of the world? Who is that thin-faced young rider with the intense brown eyes and the odd American connection? What is going on in this forest?
August 21, 1983
To solve the puzzle, one might consult any turfiste, or racing fan, who haunts the Paris tracks. He will inform his questioner that the young man is none other than Le Grand Cas, Cash Asmussen, the American youngster who, all this French racing season, has been riding neck and neck with Yves Saint-Martin, the 41-year-old jockey who is the country's Bill Shoemaker, for the Cravache d'Or, the Golden Whip, the trophy that is awarded to France's leading race-winner. As of Aug. 14, Saint-Martin led Asmussen in races won, 63-61.
Asmussen, born in Agar, S. Dak. ("The Bunkhouse belongs to my uncle") and raised in Laredo, Texas, is only 21 but already he has an impressive riding record: winner of the 1979 Eclipse Award as best apprentice in the U.S. with 231 wins; top New York jockey in 1980 with 246 wins; career earner of more than $20 million; career winner of more than 1,000 races. In May of last year, however, Asmussen quit the U.S. to become jockey under contract to the Greek shipping magnate, Stavros Niarchos, and he now rides principally in France.
Well, here's another Steve Cauthen, you might think, a jockey who took the French route instead of the English one. But Asmussen does not care for the parallel. "I didn't have Steve in my mind at all when I came over," he says, choosing his words carefully. "Remember that Steve had a kind of, uh, slow period before he went to England." He is referring, of course, to Cauthen's 110-race losing streak in California before he signed up to ride for the British soccer-pool mogul, Robert Sangster. "I never had a slow period at all," says Cash.
The words could be interpreted as being a touch arrogant. But Asmussen is merely trying to be precise, as he is in everything he does. There is deadpan humor in him, too. "Know what happened?" he says later, a little wryly. "The day I rode five winners at Aqueduct, our Olympic hockey team won the gold medal."
It was not lack of attention, however, but a cool calculation that brought him across the Atlantic. "Miss out on a guaranteed contract like this?" he asks of his three-year "first call" agreement with Niarchos. (First call means that Asmussen can ride for other owners if Niarchos doesn't need him for his horses.) "In the U.S. no one person has this many horses, this quality of horses. Trainers in the U.S. don't have retained jockeys. Take any time off there and you lose all your customers." But in France the racing season closes down for three months—from December to March. "Last winter was the first time I'd had a real break from riding races since I was 16," he says, then suddenly gestures at his surroundings. "Look at all this. Mr. Niarchos has 60 horses in training here, 60 more in another barn behind the house."
This was after the morning workout, and "barn" seemed a somewhat inadequate word to describe Boutin's establishment on the high ground south of Chantilly. "Take a look down the road," Asmussen had said as he drove back from the forest. "There's another trainer next door. Then a millionaire. Then a millionaire trainer. The Aga Khan's place is just down the way."
You looked in vain, because the great houses are secluded in their own woodlands, but Boutin's place is enough for the moment. Compared with the accommodations at an American track, those enjoyed by Niarchos' horses are lush. The staff moves about with wooden rakes and brooms out of a medieval woodcut; a Dalmatian, a German shepherd and a clutter of chickens wander around the grounds. The immaculate stables are newly clad in hardwood, the roofs newly tiled in slate. In the center of the complex is Boutin's own fine house, painted that special faded-yellow shade found on French country houses, but as elegant as the man himself; Boutin even wears his waterproof hunting boots with style.
He picked them up in 1968 on the way to the Keeneland yearling sales, and it was on another excursion to Kentucky that he had, so to speak, picked up Cash. "The first time I saw him," Boutin recalls, "I knew that here was un gar√ßon passionné, a boy with a passion for horses." What had impressed Boutin was just seeing Asmussen at the sales; it is indeed a rare thing for a jockey to be as fascinated by bloodstock, by breeding, as he is.
"Somebody," says Asmussen, taking up the tale, "told me that there was this big French trainer around, big stable, lots of horses. I fixed up an introduction and talked with him through an interpreter—my French wasn't so good then. Later on, when he was heading home through New York, he watched me ride. He said he was impressed that riding wasn't just a nine-to-five job for me, that I was an all-round horseman."
That was in 1980. The first serious feeler from the Niarchos organization didn't come until a year later. Even when it did, the young jockey agonized for months. On his 20th birthday, March 15, 1982, a day when there was no racing at Santa Anita, Asmussen flew to France and looked over the Niarchos spread at Chantilly. "I was worried," he confesses now. "I couldn't speak the language, barring a bonjour or two; I'd never been raised around it. I knew I was changing my whole life. I had nothing in common with the people. Who could I ask, 'Is that right, the Yankees won by two?' Or, 'Did the Rams lose?' "
All the same, two months later Asmussen signed up with Niarchos. One thing that swayed him, he says, was his conviction as a horseman that racing was becoming more and more an international sport. (He was borne out this summer at Keeneland, where 20 of the 24 yearlings that fetched $1 million or more were earmarked for Europe; Sangster, and Niarchos and three sheiks from the Persian Gulf were the chief buyers.) "A big body of water can't keep racing apart any longer," Asmussen says.
Boutin agrees. "Racing is like Formula One now," he says. "I don't care about the nationality of my riders—American, French, South African, English, whatever. Nationality is not important when driving the car, riding the horse. I looked merely for a young man, gifted, intelligent, uncomplicated, a gagneur—one with the will to win—like this one here."
Some of Asmussen's fears turned out to be groundless. He picked up French fast ("Just bought a book and tuned my ears in") and now he rattles away, maybe not like a Parisian but effectively. He can even tutor the visitor in coping with those barely decipherable French menus handwritten in violet ink. "Don't even try to read it," he says. "Ask the guy, 'What do you have like fish?' He tells you the fish. Or, 'What do you have like chicken or veal?' He'll tell you. That's the way I work it."
Along with the language came an unexpected plus, which Asmussen felt he shared with Cauthen—who, incidentally, now speaks not only with an English accent but with a South-of-England rural accent. Asmussen searches for words to express it. "Americans in France are kind of by themselves," he says. "Like in England and France, they have social classes. But an American, he's not put in any class. That makes it very nice."
Though he had no forelock-tugging to deal with, Asmussen's first season in France was marred by a wicked piece of bad luck that would have discouraged a less determined kid. It happened at Evry, a Parisian suburban track, on July 24 last year, in the Prix Minerve. "I was between two horses in the stretch, going forward, when they closed in a bit, just enough for my horse to stumble and fall," Asmussen recalls. "The horse behind me ran over me and broke my ankle." The description is terse; much more eloquent is the sight of the injury as it is now—two wide, livid scars, each more than four inches long, on both sides of his left ankle. "I called my mom up," he continues. "She came out for me and we took the first plane home."
Home is El Primero, the family-owned training center near Laredo, which comprises 360 stalls, a training track, a therapy unit and a feed store. Asmussen's family couldn't be more horse-oriented: His grandfather, Irving Asmussen, owns thoroughbreds that run in California; his mother, Marilyn, trains at Ruidoso Downs, N. Mex.; his father, Keith, 41, a jockey for 30 years, still rides in California, Texas and New Mexico. Brother Steve started riding last year; this winter he was an apprentice jockey at Aqueduct. In New Mexico, Cash mended and rested through last August. "I missed all of August at Deauville," he says, "a big, big month." Deauville is the Normandy town where French racing retreats from Paris in the summer, a sort of Gallic Saratoga.
Asmussen launched his '83 championship campaign by winning his first French classic, the Poule d'Essai des Poulains, on April 24, on a horse called, appropriately enough, L'Emigrant. Then on May 15, he won a big French Derby prep race, the Prix Lupin, on L'Emigrant. L'Emigrant was favored for the June 5 French Derby, but the colt finished second by three lengths after failing to catch Sangster's Caerleon. "I was beaten by a better horse that day," Asmussen says with no regret. "Mine just couldn't take the mile and a half." On July 4, again appropriately, he took the lead in the jockey standings.
As France sweltered through a midsummer heat wave, Asmussen and Saint-Martin, along with five-time champion Freddy Head, vied for the lead in the race for the Golden Whip, which is awarded for the greatest number of wins, regardless of money earned. Saint-Martin first won the Whip in 1960, two years before Cash was born. (Asmussen has been known to kid Saint-Martin by pointing out that his father is the Frenchman's junior, though only by three days.)
On July 10 at Saint-Cloud in suburban Paris, Asmussen found himself three races behind Saint-Martin. In the second race, a bell clanged dolorously for the start and the horses were off. There was a deep growl from the crowd as Asmussen, on Greinton, took the early lead, held it throughout, and clawed one win closer to Saint-Martin. "Gum on Gas!" a linguistic expert had yelled as Greinton neared the post, while a woman with pink hair and—clearly—a winning ticket essayed, "Gas, you are fab!"
Though the fans and the bettors love Asmussen most of the time ("They howl a bit if you don't win," he says), this is not so with French riders he has displaced. Some have been known to be distant in manner in the jockeys' room. "There was a certain coolness at first," Asmussen says. "I wasn't accepted immediately. I was someone coming over to take a Frenchman's place. Things improved for a while, but when I started to win again this season, began to get a lot of publicity, it started up again. I just get on with my business."
A turfiste at Saint-Cloud that afternoon might have had the truth of it as Asmussen took the fourth race aboard Pouny, narrowing the gap in the jockey standings to a single race. "They are not honest to themselves," the French race fan said in English. "They are ongry he comes to France to win." The honorable exceptions to this "ongry" reception have been Cash's chief rivals, Saint-Martin and Head. Indeed, in the jockeys' room at Saint-Cloud, the great Saint-Martin spoke of Asmussen with warmth and respect. A bronzed southerner from Toulouse, Saint-Martin has an infinitely knowledgeable old jockey's face seamed with the same lines that can be found on the faces of such veterans as England's Lester Piggott and America's Shoemaker. "Above all, he is intelligent," Saint-Martin says of Asmussen. "He has a great head for a race, a great capacity for, you know, la lutte." Literally translated, this means "the struggle," but in racing idiom it means the last stage of a race, the finish. Saint-Martin shrugs off the coldness of lesser jockeys. "It is normal," he says. "They will learn."
Outside the track, copies of Tierce magazine, a gaudy tabloid that caters to French bettors, are selling briskly; the front page displays a head-and-shoulders photo of Le Cas and a headline suggesting that the American is the victim of a conspiracy. Lay out your 4.90 francs, and you discover nothing inside but a symposium of horsemen on the novel phenomenon of the American rider who is, well, sort of taking over French racing. A few opinions are frankly hostile. "When I find myself with him in the last meters, I always have a good hope of winning," declares one Antoine Perrotta, who has an Angel Cordero-like reputation as a hard jock but who, at this point, was not placed among the top five riders in the standings. "The secret of good jockeys is good horses," faint-praises Alain Lequeux, the fourth-ranked jockey. The consensus is solidly for Asmussen, however. Most contributors rave over his calme, his sang-froid, over how aérodynamique he is in the saddle. "This name," summarizes the article, "which sounds so American, has become magic to millions of French turfistes."
For French racing, Asmussen has not altered his manner of riding at all. In fact, a lot of young French riders are beginning to imitate him, though many must struggle with a disadvantage. "On average, their legs are four inches shorter than mine," Asmussen says. "So I ride longer than Yves but I stay a lot closer to my horse." Indeed, Asmussen seems to be almost flat along his mount. Aérodynamique.
This analysis was offered on his day off, a Monday, when only steeplechase events were taking place on the local race program. Asmussen was relaxing beside the moat of the Chateau de Chantilly, where he sometimes goes to enjoy a delicacy of the region, an ice-cream cone topped with sweet whipped Chantilly cream. But should he be eating such a high-calorie creation? "Jocks here don't eat it?" he asks. "They're lying if they say that."
All the same, once the topping has gone, Asmussen tosses the rest of the cone into the swallow-haunted, carp-thronged moat, whereupon a 20-pound fish rolls up and gulps it down. The 5'6" Asmussen claims to have no problem maintaining his weight at 112 to 114 pounds, though it has been pointed out that he is tall for a jockey, and has found European racing's greater tolerance of weight convenient.
Like Cauthen, Asmussen has had to overcome the initial difficulty presented by tracks on which the horses go the "wrong" way; that is, clockwise. Indeed, the problem is more complex than that because in France the tracks are mixed. At Longchamp, Chantilly and Deauville, the racing is clockwise, at Evry and Saint-Cloud counterclockwise; at Maisons-Laffitte sometimes one way, sometimes the other. Moreover, some tracks are not level and include small hills.
Probably the toughest adjustment Asmussen had to make, though, was in coping with the very long straights—one as long as 10 furlongs—which may have caused, some say, more than a few difficulties in la lutte, his timing of a late run. After all, French horsemen say, it took the great Piggott 10 years to figure out Longchamp. "Certainly he had to figure out our long straight lines," Boutin says of Asmussen. "But people who criticize him for his finish should look at some statistics. Four times out of five in photo finishes he's won the verdict." They might look also at the way he won the Poule d'Essai des Poulains, bringing L'Emigrant up behind the leaders, timing his run perfectly.
Boutin was talking at Les Aigles as Asmussen rode out on Niarchos' 3-year-old filly Allicance, half-sister to stakes-winner Blushing Groom, a million-dollar yearling at Keeneland in the days when you could still pick up a bargain.
"Winning the confidence of Boutin did not just snap out of the clouds," Asmussen had said earlier. But that meeting at Keeneland had helped convince the trainer that the young man was more than just an ordinary jockey; that he was the complete horseman. Which Asmussen is not slow to confirm. "Being a good jockey is not just being able to guide 'em," he says. "You have to know a lot more. I want to be an overall horseman, not just a jockey, not just a breeder, not just a trainer."
That is an ambition that could well be realized, no doubt, when he finishes his riding career in the U.S., as he says he will, and goes back to the family horse business in Texas. And becomes an American again? The question rubs him a little raw.
"Can you get more American than I am?" he asks. "I think it's an honor for America that the Europeans approached me just because I had so much success in the U.S. It's an honor that they respect American riders, that they have one come over and ride some of the best horses in the world. They've been going twice as long as we have."
An honor, too, he considers it, that as an American he rides all over the world for Niarchos. "Japan, England, France, Italy, Germany, Belgium," he recites, "Tunisia, Morocco...."
It's tough' to keep a boy down on the farm now that he's seen not only Paris but much of the rest of the world. And maybe, with Saint-Martin's coming retirement, there will be the possibility of riding for the marvelous racing establishment of the Aga Khan. It may be some time before Cash gets back to Laredo on a permanent basis.