Asmussen launched his '83 championship campaign by winning his first French classic, the Poule d'Essai des Poulains, on April 24, on a horse called, appropriately enough, L'Emigrant. Then on May 15, he won a big French Derby prep race, the Prix Lupin, on L'Emigrant. L'Emigrant was favored for the June 5 French Derby, but the colt finished second by three lengths after failing to catch Sangster's Caerleon. "I was beaten by a better horse that day," Asmussen says with no regret. "Mine just couldn't take the mile and a half." On July 4, again appropriately, he took the lead in the jockey standings.
As France sweltered through a midsummer heat wave, Asmussen and Saint-Martin, along with five-time champion Freddy Head, vied for the lead in the race for the Golden Whip, which is awarded for the greatest number of wins, regardless of money earned. Saint-Martin first won the Whip in 1960, two years before Cash was born. (Asmussen has been known to kid Saint-Martin by pointing out that his father is the Frenchman's junior, though only by three days.)
On July 10 at Saint-Cloud in suburban Paris, Asmussen found himself three races behind Saint-Martin. In the second race, a bell clanged dolorously for the start and the horses were off. There was a deep growl from the crowd as Asmussen, on Greinton, took the early lead, held it throughout, and clawed one win closer to Saint-Martin. "Gum on Gas!" a linguistic expert had yelled as Greinton neared the post, while a woman with pink hair and—clearly—a winning ticket essayed, "Gas, you are fab!"
Though the fans and the bettors love Asmussen most of the time ("They howl a bit if you don't win," he says), this is not so with French riders he has displaced. Some have been known to be distant in manner in the jockeys' room. "There was a certain coolness at first," Asmussen says. "I wasn't accepted immediately. I was someone coming over to take a Frenchman's place. Things improved for a while, but when I started to win again this season, began to get a lot of publicity, it started up again. I just get on with my business."
A turfiste at Saint-Cloud that afternoon might have had the truth of it as Asmussen took the fourth race aboard Pouny, narrowing the gap in the jockey standings to a single race. "They are not honest to themselves," the French race fan said in English. "They are ongry he comes to France to win." The honorable exceptions to this "ongry" reception have been Cash's chief rivals, Saint-Martin and Head. Indeed, in the jockeys' room at Saint-Cloud, the great Saint-Martin spoke of Asmussen with warmth and respect. A bronzed southerner from Toulouse, Saint-Martin has an infinitely knowledgeable old jockey's face seamed with the same lines that can be found on the faces of such veterans as England's Lester Piggott and America's Shoemaker. "Above all, he is intelligent," Saint-Martin says of Asmussen. "He has a great head for a race, a great capacity for, you know, la lutte." Literally translated, this means "the struggle," but in racing idiom it means the last stage of a race, the finish. Saint-Martin shrugs off the coldness of lesser jockeys. "It is normal," he says. "They will learn."
Outside the track, copies of Tierce magazine, a gaudy tabloid that caters to French bettors, are selling briskly; the front page displays a head-and-shoulders photo of Le Cas and a headline suggesting that the American is the victim of a conspiracy. Lay out your 4.90 francs, and you discover nothing inside but a symposium of horsemen on the novel phenomenon of the American rider who is, well, sort of taking over French racing. A few opinions are frankly hostile. "When I find myself with him in the last meters, I always have a good hope of winning," declares one Antoine Perrotta, who has an Angel Cordero-like reputation as a hard jock but who, at this point, was not placed among the top five riders in the standings. "The secret of good jockeys is good horses," faint-praises Alain Lequeux, the fourth-ranked jockey. The consensus is solidly for Asmussen, however. Most contributors rave over his calme, his sang-froid, over how aérodynamique he is in the saddle. "This name," summarizes the article, "which sounds so American, has become magic to millions of French turfistes."
For French racing, Asmussen has not altered his manner of riding at all. In fact, a lot of young French riders are beginning to imitate him, though many must struggle with a disadvantage. "On average, their legs are four inches shorter than mine," Asmussen says. "So I ride longer than Yves but I stay a lot closer to my horse." Indeed, Asmussen seems to be almost flat along his mount. Aérodynamique.
This analysis was offered on his day off, a Monday, when only steeplechase events were taking place on the local race program. Asmussen was relaxing beside the moat of the Chateau de Chantilly, where he sometimes goes to enjoy a delicacy of the region, an ice-cream cone topped with sweet whipped Chantilly cream. But should he be eating such a high-calorie creation? "Jocks here don't eat it?" he asks. "They're lying if they say that."
All the same, once the topping has gone, Asmussen tosses the rest of the cone into the swallow-haunted, carp-thronged moat, whereupon a 20-pound fish rolls up and gulps it down. The 5'6" Asmussen claims to have no problem maintaining his weight at 112 to 114 pounds, though it has been pointed out that he is tall for a jockey, and has found European racing's greater tolerance of weight convenient.
Like Cauthen, Asmussen has had to overcome the initial difficulty presented by tracks on which the horses go the "wrong" way; that is, clockwise. Indeed, the problem is more complex than that because in France the tracks are mixed. At Longchamp, Chantilly and Deauville, the racing is clockwise, at Evry and Saint-Cloud counterclockwise; at Maisons-Laffitte sometimes one way, sometimes the other. Moreover, some tracks are not level and include small hills.