Nineteen horses swept like a flock of dark birds across acres of velvet grass at the Longchamp track last October, racing for the wire and Europe's biggest prize, the $830,000 Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe. Midway back in the pack, In the Wings, a glossy bay, suddenly broke free in a 40-mph drive toward the leaders. The margin shortened. The 3-year-old fought for each inch in the long homestretch run, giving of guts and muscle and gaining a fraction with every stride.
The elegant Parisians in the glassed-in enclosure rose to their feet. Ladies exquisitely packaged by Chanel and Saint Laurent put down tulips of champagne and gazed at the field as it approached. A man shouted, "Allez, Cash, allez."
American jockey Cash Asmussen, his 5'7" frame folded into a jackknife behind In the Wings's neck, shifted the bay into a gear the horse didn't know he had. With other horses closed around him in the galloping scramble, In the Wings suddenly felt a hard nudge from behind. He stumbled and skidded, struggling to keep his balance. The leaders pulled ahead. Time was too short and the wire too close; Asmussen's horse finished behind Carroll House by several lengths.
It was a rough run, one with no fairytale finish, but Asmussen wasn't complaining. Despite that loss, he won eight of the other 14 races during the Longchamp weekend and four group races in a single afternoon.
September 30, 1990
"Everything came together in those two days," he says. "Everybody in racing was there. I rode at least $30 million worth of horseflesh and won. It will be difficult to beat, but I'm going to try."
If his career so far is any indication of things to come, Asmussen may yet top last October's achievement. In the past five years he has been France's leading race winner four times, and he's shooting for a fifth Cravache d'Or, the Golden Whip award, this year.
At 28, Asmussen is a winner of nearly 2,500 races, and in 1988 he set a French record with 200 wins in that country in one season. Last year, Asmussen was France's top money winner, with purses totaling nearly $5 million. Of this, 7½% was held by the French Racing Association and put into Asmussen's account, in addition to undisclosed retainers and free-lance fees. Asmussen might have done even better, but his season was cut short on Oct. 13 at the Maisons-Lafitte track, when he fell during a race and cracked a vertebra.
Since his arrival in Europe eight years ago (SI, Aug. 22,1983), Asmussen has become the darling of the European racing set. He speaks fluent French with a faint Texas twang and rides winners for the beau monde: French art dealer Daniel Wildenstein, Sheik Mohammed bin Raschid al Maktoum of Dubai's ruling clan, Prince Khalid bin Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, Japanese breeder Zenya Yoshida and Greek shipping magnate Stavros Niarchos, who offered Asmussen his first riding opportunity in Europe. The queen of England and the king of Morocco have also called on Asmussen's services, and he has a firsthand knowledge of tracks from Tunis to Tokyo.
Given Asmussen's background, perhaps it is not surprising that he has had such success. His grandfather, Irving Asmussen, owns thoroughbreds that run throughout the U.S., and Cash won his first race at 16 on a horse purchased by his father, Keith, a former jockey and owner of the 360-stall El Primero training center near Laredo, Texas. The horse was trained by his mother, Marilyn. Cash's brother Steve trains horses at tracks in the Midwest. By the time Asmussen set foot in France, he already had an impressive racing record: the 1979 Eclipse Award as best apprentice jockey in the U.S., the ranking of top New York rider of 1979 and '80, and U.S. career earnings of more than $20 million. Unlike Steve Cauthen, America's best-known expatriate jockey, who was on a 110-race losing streak when he moved from California to England in 1979, Asmussen went to France while he was riding high.
Asmussen divides his time between Newmarket, the English racing capital, and an area outside Paris near the lush forest of Chantilly. The district is the heart of France's thoroughbred industry and the site of the Continent's largest equine training center. Its grounds extend over more than 2,000 acres, and the 3,000-odd horses there are under the care of nearly 2,000 people.
At an elegant Chantilly stable that might have inspired Degas, Andrè Fabre trains some 200 of Europe's finest thoroughbreds and keeps Asmussen on retainer to ride them. The combined force of France's top trainer and top jockey has been felt all across Europe, though the going hasn't always been smooth. Both men are known to be fiercely independent, and rumors circulate at the end of every season that their gentleman's agreement is about to end. The agreement gives Fabre "first call"; that is, Asmussen can ride for other trainers if he isn't needed by the Frenchman.
Asmussen enjoys a shorter season than he would have in the U.S. While his colleagues back home ride year-round, Asmussen is off from mid-November to March and can often be found observing thoroughbred sales at Keeneland in Kentucky or at Newmarket during his free months.
Asmussen's qualities were quickly appreciated by the French. He surprised the turfistes with how rapidly he adapted to European tracks, which come in all shapes and sizes: long straightaways that run uphill or down, ovals that run clockwise or counterclockwise. Each track has a unique character. American racecourses, by comparison, are relatively uniform and predictable. The sharpness of the turns or the distance may vary, but American tracks run counterclockwise and are level dirt ovals.
"It is very different here, but Cash showed both a tactical skill and a sense of pace. He knows how and where to place a horse," says Louis Romanet, the director-general of the French jockey club. "He has a clock in his head that is unsurpassed."
Although Asmussen has earned the respect of owners, trainers and jockeys, he has not always won their hearts. Australian jockey Gary Moore charged Asmussen with kicking him during a confrontation in the weighing room at France's St. Cloud racetrack last year. Asmussen denied he ever laid a toe on Moore. About 80 people were in the small room at the time, but during an investigation by stewards, not one admitted witnessing the incident. The case was dismissed.
"He is taciturn, serious, formal and known as a money grabber, someone whose only interest is making money," said one British racing official, who asked not to be named. "He's not the kind of fellow you would invite out to the pub."
Asmussen also faces some resentment from people who don't like to see a foreigner continually beating the local boys. But in the only year he spent concentrating on racing outside France, it was not his winning that got him into trouble with the fans.
Nobody loves racing like the Irish, and no man is as revered in Irish racing as trainer Vincent O'Brien, who retained Asmussen in 1987. "The Irish press billed me as the best rider in France coming to ride for the best trainer in Ireland, and they expected us to hang the moon," Asmussen recalls. "I let them think that, because of the way I spoke to the papers. I started in a typically American manner, giving myself a big buildup and being too outspoken. So I have no one to blame but myself for what happened."
The Irish crowds booed him at the starting gate. They cursed him at the finish. They chanted, "Yankee go home," while newspapers chimed in with headlines like ASMUSSEN BLOWS ANOTHER ONE. Still, by the end of the season, Asmussen had 62 wins in Ireland, second only to Michael Kinane that year. And many observers now concede that O'Brien might not have had spectacular horses for Asmussen to ride.
There are several important European races Asmussen has yet to win—the Epsom Derby, the English 2,000 Guineas, the Prix du Jockey Club (the French derby) and the elusive Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, which will be run this year on Oct. 7—but he hopes to win them all before he quits in five to seven years.
Once he retires he plans to consult with owners who come into racing greener than the grass on Newmarket heath. "I'd like to use the experience I've had all over the world to help new owners coming into the business," says Asmussen, whose fluency in French is bound to ease obstacles for high rollers buying their horses on the Continent. So will his familiarity with European ways of doing business. But his main asset will be his knowledge of the international thoroughbred industry, rather than his skill in the saddle. "A horseman," Asmussen says, "knows what makes a horse tick, understands bloodlines and knows how to match an owner to a horse." And Asmussen will undoubtedly give his clients what he now gives French racing fans, a mighty good run for their money.
Sydney Rubin, an American writer, recently moved from Paris to London.