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There's no foie gras at El Primero, or manicured lawns. No Arab oil sheiks or international playboys loiter at the rail sipping vintage champagne. The glamorous world of European horse racing couldn't seem farther away from this Thoroughbred training track and stables at the edge of Laredo. Here the lunchroom menu leaves the gate with breakfast tacos and crosses the finish with the Mexican plate. The only break in the flat, khaki-colored scenery is the sight of horsemen in jeans and black cowboy hats working their mounts--that and the NAFTA-fueled warehouses, which are everywhere.
Appearance aside, this South Texas outpost is joined at the hip with Deauville, Chantilly and Longchamp, France's storied racetracks, lyrical, green places that date back to a time when "the sport of kings" was played by kings.
The unlikely Franco-Texan connection comes in the person of Cash Asmussen, a wiry, sharp-jawed 41-year-old who could be found one recent December morning working with a horse at his sprawling family-owned training operation. "When I was famous, I used to go to bed at 4," says Asmussen, his breath forming a small mist cloud. "Now I get up at 4. At least that's what I say."
Before retiring in early 2001, the South Dakota-born, Texas-raised Asmussen was a bona fide celebrity in French horse racing, an international riding star. He is arguably Texas' greatest unknown athlete, a champion whose omission from his sport's Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, New York, strikes those familiar with his career as a severe oversight. In a state that has produced some of the world's finest horsemen--including jockeys Willie Shoemaker and Jerry Bailey--Asmussen ranks among the best of all time.
Handsome and opinionated, Asmussen was known in Europe as much for his rapport with the press and fans--whom he made a point of engaging, for good or bad--as his 3,000 career winners. In 1991, he was the toast of Paris when he rode Suave Dancer to win the Prix de L'Arc de Triomphe, the richest, most prestigious race in Europe, then gave his postrace interviews in English and fluent French.
After a successful start in America, where he was the nation's top apprentice jockey at age 16, Asmussen was lured abroad by Stavros Niarchos, a Greek shipping tycoon famous for his tastes in fabulous jewels, trophy wives and some of the world's most expensive Thoroughbreds. Riding for the Niarchos family and others, Asmussen piloted seven winners in races considered the European equivalents to America's Triple Crown series, including four wins in the French Derby.
By the end of his 22-year career--which included 51 wins in top French stakes races and five French riding crowns, not to mention an international collection of wins in the Breeders' Cup, the Hong Kong Cup, the Japan Cup, two Irish Derbies and the Arlington Million--Asmussen changed the face of French horse racing.
He is widely credited with introducing the American style--low and crouched, hands close to the horse's neck--to a country that traditionally rode its racehorses high in the saddle and stiffer in the leg. "Ninety percent of the French riders and all of the younger generation ride now with the American seat, the seat my father taught me," Asmussen says. "It works. It wins. If I had to sum up the most important thing in my career, that would be it, imitation being the highest form of flattery."
Steve Cauthen, the jockey prodigy who rode Affirmed to the 1978 Triple Crown, crossed paths many times with Asmussen during his own British-based career. "Cash and I really were too big to be jockeys, so we both had to always fight the weight," says Cauthen. Lanky for a jockey at 5-foot-6, Asmussen usually rode at about 118 to 120 pounds, five more than most U.S. jockeys but in line with riders in Europe. (Horses in European races generally carry higher weights.)
"The thing about Cash was he had an immense desire to be on top, to be a success," Cauthen says. "He was a winner, and you don't do that by waiting around to be asked. He went out and got it. He's one of the best riders I've ever seen."
Cauthen recalls getting edged in the stretch by Asmussen in a maiden race at Ascot, then in the next race coming from the outside to beat Asmussen's horse, a favorite, by a nose. "He yelled over at me, 'Paybacks are sure hell.'"
In France and Britain, horse racing ranks second only to soccer in fan appeal, and top jockeys are as well-known and closely watched as, say, baseball players in America. In that hothouse, Asmussen was cast as the ultimate brash American.
"He wore that role well," Cauthen says. "He wore it proudly."
But Asmussen gave it his own stamp. "Riders in France didn't have much of a relationship with the public," he says. "I built a rapport. If they bet a few francs on me, I was defending their money. I'd argue with them. I'd win, I was a hero. I'd get beat, I was the villain. I learned the language, showed them that I had enough respect for them to cuss them in their own language, which they loved."