Good as Cash

The unlikely story of the greatest Texas athlete you've never heard of


One of the first things that comes to mind seeing Asmussen going about his work at El Primero is his transcendent ease around young, twitchy horses. Nobody should look so comfortable on the back of a green racehorse. One minute, a chestnut colt bucks a half-dozen times before accepting Asmussen, "a 120-pound sack of potatoes," on his back. The next, the horse is obediently circling under him in the training pen while Asmussen takes a cell phone call--from a Dallas car dealer who's hired him to train his string of young Thoroughbreds--tosses an off-color remark to a stable hand about jockeys and stiff whips, and sizes up aloud what work the horse needs next.

"I'm sure he gets that horse sense from Keith," says Cash's mother, Marilyn Asmussen, who like everyone in the family has lifelong racing credentials. "Well," her husband, Keith Asmussen, 61, amends, "I don't know about that."

Thirty-five years ago, Keith Asmussen came to Texas to ride for D. Wayne Lukas, now one of the top trainers in the country, at a fairground track in Laredo. "It was about 90 degrees, and I had all the clothes on I owned. They had a pretty nice facility there at Life Downs, and you could work year-round, so I decided to move down here...I wasn't making enough money to pay attention, let alone my bills. We just all worked together and kept hammering at it, you know, and things turned around."

Asmussen practically grew up in his parents' horse barn.
Mark Graham
Asmussen practically grew up in his parents' horse barn.
Clockwise from top: Greek billionaire Stavros Niarchos with the young Cash on the day the Texas jockey delivered him his first major victory in 1983; Asmussen on Suave Dancer in 1991 as the two ride toward the starting gate and a victory in France's richest race; Cash on a racing prospect in Laredo. "They've got their training wheels on," he says.
Top: Asmussen family; Bottom: Mark Graham
Clockwise from top: Greek billionaire Stavros Niarchos with the young Cash on the day the Texas jockey delivered him his first major victory in 1983; Asmussen on Suave Dancer in 1991 as the two ride toward the starting gate and a victory in France's richest race; Cash on a racing prospect in Laredo. "They've got their training wheels on," he says.

Conveniences such as day care were out of the question for the family in those days, Marilyn recalls, so their two young sons, Cash and Steve, "came with us every day to the barn...They grew up in the barn. They started their formal education in racing from the time they could recognize what a horse was."

Save for a short stretch when Cash was very young--the result of a nasty turn with a horse, his mother suspects--he and his younger brother burned to be jockeys. "Things were different then," recalls Steve Asmussen, now 38. "There weren't insurance requirements...there were opportunities in unregulated racing at these little ma-and-pa tracks, opportunities that were probably even easier because we were willing to do it for free."

Cash rode some of the 70 or 80 horses his parents had in training, and it was obvious he had a gift, his brother says. "Way, way better than I ever was," Steve says. "The interesting thing about Cash is that I don't think he understands why everybody can't ride like he does. He's blind to it."

Steve, who grew too big to be a professional rider, quickly moved into training and today is far more visible than his brother. Last year, his horses posted 452 wins for purses totaling $11.7 million at tracks from Kentucky to Texas, ranking him second in the nation. He has had a few horses in the past several years entered in top races such as the Kentucky Derby and Breeders' Cup.

Keith says he knew early on that Cash could have a riding career, and he introduced him to people who could make that happen in Kentucky and New York. He won on the first horse he rode in El Paso, and after four more winners he moved to New York. "All I thought about was turning 16, so I could ride," says Cash, who moved in with trainer Chuck Taliaferro and began his Eclipse Award-winning apprentice year at Monmouth Park and Aqueduct with 231 wins.

In four years in New York, and a few short stops in California, Asmussen rode more than 1,000 winners worth $20 million in purses. By 1982, he had caught the eye of Francois Boutin, a legendary French trainer who was assembling a stable for the billionaire Niarchos, who at the time was new to the racing world. "Boutin called Angel Penna, who was a trainer at Belmont," Asmussen remembers. "I'd never ridden for him, but Penna came up and told me, in his thick accent, 'You don't know what life is. This life is shit. Europe is the life.'"

Asmussen says he didn't think much of the overture until Niarchos' team began making money offers. "They sweetened the pot and sweetened the pot until you just couldn't say no," he says. Says his father, "Plain and simple, it was a money deal."

Boutin told Sports Illustrated that year, "I knew here was un garçon passionne, a boy with a passion for horses." With all of the hidebound chauvinism of European racing, it was a leap to embrace an American jockey. But after watching Asmussen ride in New York, Boutin was sold on Cash. He told the sports magazine he was looking for someone "gifted, intelligent, uncomplicated, a gagneur," one with the will to win.

By that time, Cash was doing so well he went in with Keith and built El Primero, a facility with a deep, soft track specifically designed to train young, still-fragile horses.

In France--where the grass-surfaced tracks aren't America's standard ovals, they don't always race counterclockwise and some tracks feature small hills--Asmussen made some quick adjustments and met immediate success with his novel American style. "The French riders always said they rode the way they did because of the undulating courses. They had done it that way for hundreds of years," Asmussen says. "But you don't have to look like you're jumping off a building, which is how you look riding up in the saddle. You're not aerodynamic sitting up going 45 miles per hour. And with your foot all the way in the stirrup, your ankle isn't absorbing the shock."

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