By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
"If you think you're a genius, play the horse game for a while. You won't stay a genius. That's why these billionaires play it. They can own everything they see, but they can't possess racing."
Asmussen's 1987 season in Ireland and England was hardly a dud. He rode 126 winners and was winning with an extraordinary 38 percent of his mounts. But the O'Brien-Sangster stable "had few bullets in its gun" that year, as Asmussen puts it, and their star rider was pilloried in the racing press when he failed to come through in the big ones. That year Asmussen rode the most expensive horse ever sold as a yearling, Seattle Dancer, which Sangster bought in Kentucky for $13.1 million. The horse, a half-brother of Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew, won two Grade 2 races but failed to live up to his price tag. When another Asmussen mount, a 4-9 favorite, was edged in the Persian Bold Stakes, the Irish crowd burst out singing, "California here I come...Right back where I started from."
In 1990, Asmussen's father acquired a promising yearling in Kentucky from insurance magnate Henri Chalhoub for the bargain price of $45,000. Keith Asmussen broke and trained Suave Dancer at El Primero, then shipped him to Chantilly, where English trainer John Hammond finished his race preparation. "He was an unraced 2-year-old that always had something special. To people who work with horses, touch 'em, that isn't a word used loosely," Cash says. "When he went on to prove himself, it was just unbelievable. It was just a phenomenal coup."
Asmussen won the French Derby going away on Suave Dancer but fell from another horse later that month and broke his collarbone. At the Irish Derby, with another jockey aboard, Suave Dancer finished second by three lengths to Generous, his main rival for European Horse of the Year.
The deciding face-off between the two champions came in October, in the $1.5 million L'Arc at the Longchamp racecourse outside Paris. Suave Dancer drew an impossibly difficult post position, 17th in a 19-horse race.
"With that position, by the time we got to the backside, there were 15 in front of us. We were so far back you needed a searchlight to find us," Asmussen says. But as Hammond explained later, he knew Suave Dancer could accelerate when he was called upon, and Asmussen executed a come-from-behind strategy to perfection. Early in the stretch run, Suave Dancer blew by Generous and the early leaders and opened up a comfortable three-length lead. He coasted to a two-length victory. "It looked easy, but all the hard work was done down the back," Asmussen says.
"A horse has so much energy. I saw my job as assisting him to use this energy to the best of his ability. I tried to build that rapport and get inside the head of my partner...to be a part of the horse and then to be motionless, to bluff him when he needed to be bluffed. When they don't think they can do it, you're basically showing them they can. When you're paid a lot of money to do it, and you love it, you're thinking about these things all the time."
Talking about a side of him that has long been a part of his racing career, Asmussen says flatly, "There was a lot at stake in that race." Earlier that season, he says, his family had purchased several horses in Suave Dancer's bloodline, and their investment paid off when they became relatives to the European champion.
Indeed, some of Asmussen's favorite racing stories are about deals--not horses--that he negotiated on his own, as his own agent, with various owners and trainers. He always watched out for the business end of things. "Cash liked to negotiate his paydays in advance," Cauthen recalls.
In 1986, Asmussen was slick enough to negotiate a six-figure payday in a jockey-swap deal that allowed Pat Eddery to ride Dancing Brave in the $1.2 million King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes. "I was paid for watching it on TV," he says. Other times, his demands meant he didn't ride or get paid at all. "I think it happened to me less than others, but there are times when they come to you a week before the $2 million race, and they tell you they don't love you anymore."
"After 18 years in a country smaller than Texas, there was hardly anyone left to get in a fight with. So it's the rebuilding of the bridges that you burned. I've had to do a lot of that."