Nineteen horses swept like a flock of dark birds across acres of velvet grass at the Longchamp track last October, racing for the wire and Europe's biggest prize, the $830,000 Prix de l' Arc de Triomphe. Midway back in the pack, In the Wings, a glossy bay, suddenly broke free in a 40-mph drive toward the leaders. The margin shortened. The 3-year-old fought for each inch in the long homestretch run, giving of guts and muscle and gaining a fraction with every stride.
The elegant Parisians in the glassed-in enclosure rose to their feet. Ladies exquisitely packaged by Chanel and Saint Laurent put down tulips of champagne and gazed at the field as it approached. A man shouted, "Allez, Cash, allez."
American jockey Cash Asmussen, his 5'7" frame folded into a jackknife behind In the Wings's neck, shifted the bay into a gear the horse didn't know he had. With other horses closed around him in the galloping scramble, In the Wings suddenly felt a hard nudge from behind. He stumbled and skidded, struggling to keep his balance. The leaders pulled ahead. Time was too short and the wire too close; Asmussen's horse finished behind Carroll House by several lengths.
It was a rough run, one with no fairytale finish, but Asmussen wasn't complaining. Despite that loss, he won eight of the other 14 races during the Longchamp weekend and four group races in a single afternoon.
"Everything came together in those two days," he says. "Everybody in racing was there. I rode at least $30 million worth of horseflesh and won. It will be difficult to beat, but I'm going to try."
If his career so far is any indication of things to come, Asmussen may yet top last October's achievement. In the past five years he has been France's leading race winner four times, and he's shooting for a fifth Cravache d'Or, the Golden Whip award, this year.
At 28, Asmussen is a winner of nearly 2,500 races, and in 1988 he set a French record with 200 wins in that country in one season. Last year, Asmussen was France's top money winner, with purses totaling nearly $5 million. Of this, 7�% was held by the French Racing Association and put into Asmussen's account, in addition to undisclosed retainers and free-lance fees. Asmussen might have done even better, but his season was cut short on Oct. 13 at the Maisons-Lafitte track, when he fell during a race and cracked a vertebra.
Since his arrival in Europe eight years ago (SI, Aug. 22,1983), Asmussen has become the darling of the European racing set. He speaks fluent French with a faint Texas twang and rides winners for the beau monde: French art dealer Daniel Wildenstein, Sheik Mohammed bin Raschid al Maktoum of Dubai's ruling clan, Prince Khalid bin Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, Japanese breeder Zenya Yoshida and Greek shipping magnate Stavros Niarchos, who offered Asmussen his first riding opportunity in Europe. The queen of England and the king of Morocco have also called on Asmussen's services, and he has a firsthand knowledge of tracks from Tunis to Tokyo.
Given Asmussen's background, perhaps it is not surprising that he has had such success. His grandfather, Irving Asmussen, owns thoroughbreds that run throughout the U.S., and Cash won his first race at 16 on a horse purchased by his father, Keith, a former jockey and owner of the 360-stall El Primero training center near Laredo, Texas. The horse was trained by his mother, Marilyn. Cash's brother Steve trains horses at tracks in the Midwest. By the time Asmussen set foot in France, he already had an impressive racing record: the 1979 Eclipse Award as best apprentice jockey in the U.S., the ranking of top New York rider of 1979 and '80, and U.S. career earnings of more than $20 million. Unlike Steve Cauthen, America's best-known expatriate jockey, who was on a 110-race losing streak when he moved from California to England in 1979, Asmussen went to France while he was riding high.
Asmussen divides his time between Newmarket, the English racing capital, and an area outside Paris near the lush forest of Chantilly. The district is the heart of France's thoroughbred industry and the site of the Continent's largest equine training center. Its grounds extend over more than 2,000 acres, and the 3,000-odd horses there are under the care of nearly 2,000 people.