It is a lyrical summer morning near Chantilly, France: The early light comes dappling through a lacework of beech and lime and oak leaves. Beyond the trees, the mist still swirls about the wide expanse of grass they call Les Aigles, The Eagles. History hangs heavy here; in this forest the Princes of Condé hunted wild boar and stag. And those horsemen that break from a knoll on the far side of the clearing could, you fantasize, be vedettes of Napoleon's army, scouting the ground before some important battle.
The riders are lost in mist, emerge again, thunder down at full gallop—and the fantasy stops right there. Emblazoned on the back of the leading horseman's windbreaker are the words: THE BUNK-HOUSE CAFE, PIERRE, SOUTH DAKOTA. FINE FOODS AND COCKTAILS.
You are back to 1983, fast, standing in France's huge thoroughbred training center, owned by the Society for the Encouragement and Amelioration of Horse Species in France; its 618 acres, with 68 miles of sand training tracks and 59 miles of grass tracks, lie in Chantilly's ancient forest. This is the heart of the nation's thoroughbred industry, where more than 3,000 horses are quartered, the concern of more than 8,000 people. And that silver-haired man yelling Doucement! Doucement! (Take it easy!) to the riders is plainly one of them; a trainer, the redoubtable Francois Boutin.
Which, of course, still leaves the unbriefed stranger more than slightly disoriented. Why is the Bunkhouse Cafe, Pierre, S. Dak. flaunting itself just 24 miles north of the gastronomic capital of the world? Who is that thin-faced young rider with the intense brown eyes and the odd American connection? What is going on in this forest?
To solve the puzzle, one might consult any turfiste, or racing fan, who haunts the Paris tracks. He will inform his questioner that the young man is none other than Le Grand Cas, Cash Asmussen, the American youngster who, all this French racing season, has been riding neck and neck with Yves Saint-Martin, the 41-year-old jockey who is the country's Bill Shoemaker, for the Cravache d'Or, the Golden Whip, the trophy that is awarded to France's leading race-winner. As of Aug. 14, Saint-Martin led Asmussen in races won, 63-61.
Asmussen, born in Agar, S. Dak. ("The Bunkhouse belongs to my uncle") and raised in Laredo, Texas, is only 21 but already he has an impressive riding record: winner of the 1979 Eclipse Award as best apprentice in the U.S. with 231 wins; top New York jockey in 1980 with 246 wins; career earner of more than $20 million; career winner of more than 1,000 races. In May of last year, however, Asmussen quit the U.S. to become jockey under contract to the Greek shipping magnate, Stavros Niarchos, and he now rides principally in France.
Well, here's another Steve Cauthen, you might think, a jockey who took the French route instead of the English one. But Asmussen does not care for the parallel. "I didn't have Steve in my mind at all when I came over," he says, choosing his words carefully. "Remember that Steve had a kind of, uh, slow period before he went to England." He is referring, of course, to Cauthen's 110-race losing streak in California before he signed up to ride for the British soccer-pool mogul, Robert Sangster. "I never had a slow period at all," says Cash.
The words could be interpreted as being a touch arrogant. But Asmussen is merely trying to be precise, as he is in everything he does. There is deadpan humor in him, too. "Know what happened?" he says later, a little wryly. "The day I rode five winners at Aqueduct, our Olympic hockey team won the gold medal."
It was not lack of attention, however, but a cool calculation that brought him across the Atlantic. "Miss out on a guaranteed contract like this?" he asks of his three-year "first call" agreement with Niarchos. (First call means that Asmussen can ride for other owners if Niarchos doesn't need him for his horses.) "In the U.S. no one person has this many horses, this quality of horses. Trainers in the U.S. don't have retained jockeys. Take any time off there and you lose all your customers." But in France the racing season closes down for three months—from December to March. "Last winter was the first time I'd had a real break from riding races since I was 16," he says, then suddenly gestures at his surroundings. "Look at all this. Mr. Niarchos has 60 horses in training here, 60 more in another barn behind the house."
This was after the morning workout, and "barn" seemed a somewhat inadequate word to describe Boutin's establishment on the high ground south of Chantilly. "Take a look down the road," Asmussen had said as he drove back from the forest. "There's another trainer next door. Then a millionaire. Then a millionaire trainer. The Aga Khan's place is just down the way."