Good as Cash

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

He flashes his winning smile, remembering how he blew off a young woman who telephoned him in the summer of 1990 to inquire about a horse he was selling.

"I thought, 'What a chauvinist pig!'" recalls the woman, his future wife, Cheryl Asmussen, who was in France that summer training horses for Johnny Jones, a man with a training center in Brenham, Texas. The two met at a Deauville nightclub a few days later and hit it off. "I had to dig myself out of a hole I didn't even know I had dug," Cash says, his English oh-so-slightly spoken in the clipped, precise diction of someone accustomed to speaking French. "I definitely had her convinced I wasn't charming in our first conversation."

They married in 1992 and set up housekeeping in a former hunting lodge on the forested grounds of the Chateau Chantilly, a storybook landmark of the grandest dimensions. Cheryl, who grew up in Fayetteville, Texas, population 356, began learning French cooking at the Cordon Bleu school in Paris, where Julia Child got her start, and catching up with Cash's command of the language. Two years later, they had their first child, Catherine, followed by Caroline and Christine. Like the Asmussen generation before them, they have been riding horses since they could walk. "Call it divine intervention," Cheryl says. "A jockey with three daughters."

Asmussen "breezes" a horse on a fast training run at El Primero. "I couldn't tell you I wouldn't want to own and race a champion in France," he says during a break in the day's work.
Mark Graham
Asmussen "breezes" a horse on a fast training run at El Primero. "I couldn't tell you I wouldn't want to own and race a champion in France," he says during a break in the day's work.
Shorthand: Asmussen has long used the dollar sign as his signature. The brashness of it drove the Brits nuts.
Mark Graham
Shorthand: Asmussen has long used the dollar sign as his signature. The brashness of it drove the Brits nuts.

As the kids scurried around El Primero's office on a recent morning, Cheryl called to them in French, "Attend! Attend!"

On account of French visa rules and the pull of his strong family, Asmussen's racing year always included a long winter retreat in Laredo. Serious French racing shuts down from November until well into March. Cash would return to work horses with his parents at El Primero or go to the big horse sales in Kentucky.

Cash and his family continued with this rhythm of the seasons through the 1990s. His riding was centered in France, but he added a few major U.S. races to his schedule as well. He won the Arlington Million on Dear Doctor in 1992 and the $1 million Breeders' Cup Mile on French-bred Spinning World in 1997, setting a track and race record.

In 2000, he teamed up with his brother in the 125th Preakness Stakes in Baltimore, riding Snuck In to a fifth-place finish. Cash moved the horse into third at the top of the Pimlico stretch, just three-quarters of a length from the lead, but Snuck In didn't have enough gas to stay with the eventual winner, Red Bullet.

By the end of that season, Asmussen says, "I realized I wasn't enjoying it as much. I was a bit of a burnout. You can only eat so much foie gras, and I love foie gras. But when it starts coming out of your ears, you move on to the lobster or snails or whatever the next life might be."

It was natural for him, he says, to turn to training and breeding and scouting the sales in search of his own winners. So the Asmussens packed up their French furniture, their cats and rabbits and headed home to Laredo.

"All these 25 years I've been working around some of the greatest horsemen in the world, starting with my father," Asmussen says. "Now I get to practice what I've learned, and I don't have to be a team player. I've been a team player, yes, but God only knows I have problems with authority. Now if I want to gallop them to the left or the right, I don't have to ask anybody. I only have to look in the mirror to see whose decision was right or wrong."

At El Primero, Cash has established his own operation, Cashmark Farms, alongside Keith and Marilyn's Asmussen Training Center. He has both his own horses--the fanciest in the barn at the moment is a filly sired by Kentucky Derby winner Fusaichi Pegasus--and breaks and trains young horses for other owners and trainers, including brother Steve. "He's coaching the major-league team. We have the farm team," Cash explains.

Says his father, "At first, I think, it was difficult for him. It's harder to see the goal working at this. It's unnoticed. You don't get the glory. But it's an art of its own, you know, and if the man [who hires you] isn't satisfied, he won't be back.

"Cash has got some good clients due to his reputation. He's getting comfortable with it."

Although home base is now Laredo, Cash and his family have hardly lost their international touch. In the past six months, Cash has traveled to France, Hong Kong and Australia on horse business, and the family takes an annual vacation to France for the summer racing season. "They know me at Regine's...and at the casino," Keith jokes, referring to two Deauville institutions that keep drifting in and out of the family history.

Cash's far-flung contacts have made him a natural ambassador for Lone Star Park at Grand Prairie as it prepares to host the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships in October.

It was a tremendous coup for the 7-year-old track to land the event, with its $14 million in purses and its field of champion horses and well-to-do owners from around the world. Now it has to convince Europeans who've never raced in Texas to ship their million-dollar horses to a state that didn't even have sanctioned Thoroughbred racing until the 1990s.

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