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."
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."
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."
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.'
"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."
Actually, it was back to France and a four-year stretch that became the peak of Asmussen's career. French newspaper clippings that today hang alongside the horseshoe coat racks and snakeskin displays at El Primero celebrate "Monsieur 100 Victories a Year" and the season in which he hit 200 wins. Riding for trainer Andre Fabre, Asmussen won three straight Golden Whip awards from 1988 to 1990 and followed up in 1991 with the biggest, most satisfying victory of his career.
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."
The European racing press used various euphemisms to describe Asmussen's on-and-off relationships with owners and trainers through the years, many of them apparently too mild. "I'm a hothead. I'm intense," he concedes. "I was fighting for the same things they were, but you're not going to agree on things sometimes.
"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."
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."
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.
"As far as I'm concerned, it was a stroke of genius for Corey [Johnsen, the track's president] to ask Cash to get involved," says Breeders' Cup President D.G. Van Clief Jr. "He's the perfect ambassador. He has such a name and reputation. If you know Cash, you know he presents himself well. People like him."
The cup races face "a bit of a challenge" recruiting European runners, Van Clief says. "They haven't been here. They're gonna perceive Texas as a warm-weather climate, which scares them a little bit. We've got a missionary job to do, and he's a perfect guy to do it."
Even without being paid, as he is now, Asmussen has long touted horse racing as a world sport and the Breeders' Cup as its Super Bowl. "The Breeders' Cup has brought international racing to another public," he says. "For the Europeans, they've put enough money in that it makes it worth their while to risk traveling their horses and playing on a field that is not their home."
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Questions he gets in his new role are mostly technical--things such as track conditions, probable weather and quarantine facilities--not cultural, he says. There isn't much to explain about the United States or Texas to this crowd. "People who have a stable of horses that might have one or two or three capable of competing in the Breeders' Cup are people of the world," he says.
It's a club Cash wouldn't mind joining.
"I couldn't tell you I wouldn't want to own and race a champion in France after having won most of the major races in that country. That would be something," he says. "What better life than to get to go to France, one of the nicest countries in the world, and be paid to be there. It's nice to go back and visit now, but it's not the same. There's no challenge. Nothing I have my teeth sunk into."
That's typical Cash, his brother Steve says fondly. His goals always have something to do with world domination. "You do it one horse at a time," Steve says. "We definitely haven't topped off yet."