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A Yank Who's Cashing In
Clive Gammon
August 22, 1983
America's Cash Asmussen has taken to riding in France like a canard to I'eau. Now he's vying for the top jockey award
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August 22, 1983

A Yank Who's Cashing In

America's Cash Asmussen has taken to riding in France like a canard to I'eau. Now he's vying for the top jockey award

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You looked in vain, because the great houses are secluded in their own woodlands, but Boutin's place is enough for the moment. Compared with the accommodations at an American track, those enjoyed by Niarchos' horses are lush. The staff moves about with wooden rakes and brooms out of a medieval woodcut; a Dalmatian, a German shepherd and a clutter of chickens wander around the grounds. The immaculate stables are newly clad in hardwood, the roofs newly tiled in slate. In the center of the complex is Boutin's own fine house, painted that special faded-yellow shade found on French country houses, but as elegant as the man himself; Boutin even wears his waterproof hunting boots with style.

He picked them up in 1968 on the way to the Keeneland yearling sales, and it was on another excursion to Kentucky that he had, so to speak, picked up Cash. "The first time I saw him," Boutin recalls, "I knew that here was un garçon passionné, a boy with a passion for horses." What had impressed Boutin was just seeing Asmussen at the sales; it is indeed a rare thing for a jockey to be as fascinated by bloodstock, by breeding, as he is.

"Somebody," says Asmussen, taking up the tale, "told me that there was this big French trainer around, big stable, lots of horses. I fixed up an introduction and talked with him through an interpreter—my French wasn't so good then. Later on, when he was heading home through New York, he watched me ride. He said he was impressed that riding wasn't just a nine-to-five job for me, that I was an all-round horseman."

That was in 1980. The first serious feeler from the Niarchos organization didn't come until a year later. Even when it did, the young jockey agonized for months. On his 20th birthday, March 15, 1982, a day when there was no racing at Santa Anita, Asmussen flew to France and looked over the Niarchos spread at Chantilly. "I was worried," he confesses now. "I couldn't speak the language, barring a bonjour or two; I'd never been raised around it. I knew I was changing my whole life. I had nothing in common with the people. Who could I ask, 'Is that right, the Yankees won by two?' Or, 'Did the Rams lose?' "

All the same, two months later Asmussen signed up with Niarchos. One thing that swayed him, he says, was his conviction as a horseman that racing was becoming more and more an international sport. (He was borne out this summer at Keeneland, where 20 of the 24 yearlings that fetched $1 million or more were earmarked for Europe; Sangster, and Niarchos and three sheiks from the Persian Gulf were the chief buyers.) "A big body of water can't keep racing apart any longer," Asmussen says.

Boutin agrees. "Racing is like Formula One now," he says. "I don't care about the nationality of my riders—American, French, South African, English, whatever. Nationality is not important when driving the car, riding the horse. I looked merely for a young man, gifted, intelligent, uncomplicated, a gagneur—one with the will to win—like this one here."

Some of Asmussen's fears turned out to be groundless. He picked up French fast ("Just bought a book and tuned my ears in") and now he rattles away, maybe not like a Parisian but effectively. He can even tutor the visitor in coping with those barely decipherable French menus handwritten in violet ink. "Don't even try to read it," he says. "Ask the guy, 'What do you have like fish?' He tells you the fish. Or, 'What do you have like chicken or veal?' He'll tell you. That's the way I work it."

Along with the language came an unexpected plus, which Asmussen felt he shared with Cauthen—who, incidentally, now speaks not only with an English accent but with a South-of-England rural accent. Asmussen searches for words to express it. "Americans in France are kind of by themselves," he says. "Like in England and France, they have social classes. But an American, he's not put in any class. That makes it very nice."

Though he had no forelock-tugging to deal with, Asmussen's first season in France was marred by a wicked piece of bad luck that would have discouraged a less determined kid. It happened at Evry, a Parisian suburban track, on July 24 last year, in the Prix Minerve. "I was between two horses in the stretch, going forward, when they closed in a bit, just enough for my horse to stumble and fall," Asmussen recalls. "The horse behind me ran over me and broke my ankle." The description is terse; much more eloquent is the sight of the injury as it is now—two wide, livid scars, each more than four inches long, on both sides of his left ankle. "I called my mom up," he continues. "She came out for me and we took the first plane home."

Home is El Primero, the family-owned training center near Laredo, which comprises 360 stalls, a training track, a therapy unit and a feed store. Asmussen's family couldn't be more horse-oriented: His grandfather, Irving Asmussen, owns thoroughbreds that run in California; his mother, Marilyn, trains at Ruidoso Downs, N. Mex.; his father, Keith, 41, a jockey for 30 years, still rides in California, Texas and New Mexico. Brother Steve started riding last year; this winter he was an apprentice jockey at Aqueduct. In New Mexico, Cash mended and rested through last August. "I missed all of August at Deauville," he says, "a big, big month." Deauville is the Normandy town where French racing retreats from Paris in the summer, a sort of Gallic Saratoga.

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