By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Asmussen had to learn the quirks of the French tracks, how to manage a horse's speed and energy on courses not laid out in neat ovals, how to time the finish on a long, straight track. But, he says, Boutin put him on a lot of "live" horses, and he won even as he learned how European races are run.
In 1983, he delivered Niarchos his first win in a Grade 1 race, the Poule d'Essai des Poulains, with a perfectly timed stretch run. Fittingly, it was on a horse named L'Emigrant. Less than a month later, he piloted the horse to another Grade 1 winner at the Prix Lupin.
Asmussen makes light of the difficulties he faced going abroad at such a young age to compete in a high-stakes world where "one drop of the horse's head, and you've lost the race." "He was homesick a lot," says his mother. "He flew home whenever he could."
Asmussen's contract to ride "first call" for one of the best stables in the country and his quick move to the top of the riding standings didn't endear him to French jockeys, who circulated a petition demanding that his license be revoked. They gathered plenty of signatures but fell short when several of the best riders, including the French legend Yves St. Martin, refused to sign.
"Would they have gone on strike? I don't think so," says Asmussen, who nonetheless had one more hurdle, the cold shoulder, to overcome. "When I got there I needed an interpreter to order breakfast," he says. "I damned sure wasn't going to venture to buy curtains."
When Asmussen in 1985 won his first of five Cravache D'Or awards--the Golden Whip trophy for the season's top jockey--it was unprecedented. Only Frenchmen had won the award up until then.
It began to sink in with his family how far and fast he had traveled.
The ceremony was at Deauville, a seaside racing mecca in Normandy that hosts a chic race meet in August, sort of like Saratoga in upstate New York or California's Del Mar. "It was in a huge ballroom at the casino there," Steve Asmussen recalls. "I'm probably 17, I'm there with my parents and my brother gets up to make his acceptance speech, which he does in French. In my mind, just a couple of years earlier, he's showing steers at our county fair. Growing up, I thought Ruidoso [Downs, a minor-league track in New Mexico] was the top of the racing world, and Cash felt the same. Anyway, it was a long way to go to make that leap, and it was impressive that Cash did it. We're from Laredo. It ain't Deauville."
Cash grew impressed with himself as well.
After his three-year contract with Niarchos expired, he jumped at an even more appealing offer to ride for trainer Mahmoud Foustok, ran up 95 victories in 1986 and captured his second riding trophy. With much fanfare in the British press, he announced he would be crossing the Channel and racing in Great Britain in 1987, stepping into the shoes of the great Pat Eddery as contract rider for trainer Vincent O'Brien and owner Robert Sangster, and their famed Irish stable, Ballydoyle.
"I went in there with a big reputation, a bigger paycheck and an even bigger opinion of how I'd do, so I was ripe for the hammering," Asmussen recalls. "I felt it was gonna work out, but you don't brag about taking the picture before the game in racing."
Under a story headlined "The Texan With the 10-gallon Ego," a track writer for The (London) Guardian described Asmussen as a "graduate of the Jay Gatsby school of self-advancement."
The name Cash--a childhood nickname coined by his father that became his legal name at age 9, when he dropped Brian--was enough to set off the straight-backed Brits. But Asmussen helped by using the dollar sign for his signature on the back of his riding helmet. He compounded the problem with remarks like this to The Times of London: "I want to know what my friend, the king of Morocco, is doing tomorrow. If I had to ride his horses and go to meet him at his palace, I need to know whether Gadaffi's mad at him or whether he's talking to Yasser Arafat. I like to know the temperature."
In fact, Asmussen was riding horses for Sheik Mohammed of Dubai's royal family, Prince Khaled Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, Japanese businessman Zenya Upshida and French art dealer Daniel Wildenstein. But it sounded loutish when he confirmed he came at a high fee and liked riding "quality horses for quality people."
"You sign your name to anything in racing, and sooner or later you'll be humbled," he says today in a more mature voice. "There's a fine line between confidence and conceit." He uses a favorite French racing story to make the point. Maurice Zilber, an Egyptian-born trainer, won the Epsom Derby with a horse named Empery and the French Derby with a horse named Youth, all within the span of a week, Asmussen recalls. "A reporter asked him, 'How can you do that?' and Zilber replied, 'I can walk on water.' That was the headline the next day, 'I Can Walk on Water.' Well, the next week, one of his winners got stuffed. The headline the next day read, 'Zilber Drowns.'