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Three Yankee-Doodle Dandies Jockey for Prominence on Europe's Great Racetracks

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Some Americans go to Europe to get away from it all. Others seek out the company of their countrymen and congregate at traditional expatriate hangouts such as Harry’s Bar in Venice, the Hofbräuhaus in Munich and the Hotel de Crillon bar in Paris. To this list one must add another spot where Yanks have been cropping up with astonishing regularity—the winner’s circle at racetracks up and down the Continent. Three Americans in particular—Steve Cauthen, Cash Asmussen and Darrell McHargue—are responsible for this trend, having guided more than 200 mounts to victory on foreign soil in the 1983 racing season.

The trio of expatriates met up for the first time on Sunday, Oct. 2 at Long-champ, the tony track on the outskirts of Paris. Cauthen and Asmussen were there on business; they were riding in the 62nd running of the prestigious Prix de I’Arc de Triomphe. And McHargue, like 27,600 others, was simply there as a spectator—a horseman’s holiday, if you will. As it happened, the representatives of the red, white and blue finished out of the money on this day, but that in no way diminishes the accomplishments of the three.

Cauthen was the first to emigrate, back in 1979. After a spectacular sophomore season (his earnings totaled more than $6 million and he was named Sportsman of the Year by SPORTS ILLUSTRATED), the quiet kid from Kentucky was looking for new worlds to conquer. Next, in 1982, came Asmussen, a dashing Texan who won the Eclipse Award as the best apprentice jockey in the United States four years ago and now has more than 1,000 winners under his slender belt. And finally, last February, along came McHargue, former Preakness winner and 1978’s jockey of the year. At 29, he is the old man of the trio.

The expatriates’ life-styles are as different as their adopted countries. Cauthen, 23, has become something of an English squire, living in rural Berkshire. Asmussen, 21, leads a fast-paced life. He divides his time between apartments in Paris and Chantilly but thinks nothing of flying to America—as he did the weekend of the Arc de Triomphe—for one race. And McHargue is a family man who lives with his wife and stepson in a cozy cottage in the heart of Irish racing country.

What prompted these three young jockeys to leave America, where the prize money is so much greater than in Europe? Cauthen claims he was attracted by the diversity of European racing (“It has to be more fun than 90 days in a row at Belmont”), but the talk in U.S. racing circles is that he went to England because of a weight problem: As a still-growing youth of 18 he became too big. (He now weighs 118 pounds; in 1977 he was riding at 95.) Others point to his string of 110 straight races without a winner in early 1979. Regardless, his arrival in England was accompanied by the kind of giddy ballyhoo usually accorded rock stars.

Now, in his fifth season in Britain, he has become a smoothly self-assured member of the club, right down to his hand-tailored Savile Row suits, cashmere sweaters and Anglicized accent. Cauthen’s first season in England is still a marvel: He was a winner on his very first day, and a month later, he rode a 20-1 shot to victory in the 2000 Guineas, one leg of the English Triple Crown.

Cauthen talks matter-of-factly about his success: “They accepted me because they could see I was a nice guy and not a big-headed kid. The fact that I’ve stayed and stuck with it has paid off.” Cauthen is on a retainer to horseman Robert Sangster, who reportedly pays him $300,000 per year—with enough side benefits to make him a millionaire. He lives in a three-bedroom bungalow in the horsey Berkshire Downs country west of London. Life revolves around racing. He’s up by 6:30 a.m. After a meager breakfast of coffee and toast, he rides out over the soft, rolling hills. If it’s a race day, he drives himself to the course in his maroon Mercedes. Though he remains mum about his social life, he has been sighted with Lady Carolyn Herbert, 21, the daughter of the Queen’s racing manager.

The big difference between racing in the U.S. and Europe, says Cauthen, is the courses. “In America,” he explains, “all the courses are mostly the same distance. There are long straights and tight bends. Every course here is different. Some have an uphill finish, some a slight downhill. I have not changed my style. I’ve learned where to be at the right time.”

Cauthen also likes the English attitude toward racing. “Over here,” he points out, “people bet and go to the races for fun. In America it’s more businesslike. Here they’re not as worried about money.”

Cauthen goes back to Kentucky about twice a year but has no current plans to return for good. Moving to England, he says, “has made me a more confident person. Before, I had a slight touch of the paranoids. It seemed as if everybody was looking at me, and I had no privacy. In America they never left you alone. There is more respect for people here.”

With a jockey for a father and a trainer for a mother, it’s no wonder that Bryan Keith Asmussen went into racing. Legend has it that when gazing at his infant son, Asmussen’s father said, “Even if I go broke, I’ll still have Cash.” A nickname was born.

Cash grew up bilingual in the Texas border town of Laredo. When he was 16, the budding rider was taken out of school and packed off to New York City. He had a trainer-tutor, a Texas driver’s license and an apartment not far from Belmont and Aqueduct. He blossomed in his independent life, finished high school via correspondence courses and set off for California to race some more. After six months there, when Cash was 19 years old, Greek shipping magnate Stavros Niarchos asked him to ride under contract for his stable in France. Cash had ridden $20 million worth of winners in his career. “It was the chance of a lifetime,” recalls Asmussen. So he went.

Niarchos refers to Cash as “my boy,” and often puts the jockey up in one of his apartments. Cash is awake at 6 to exercise the horses. His social life centers around restaurants, where he’s happy to be recognized as “Le jockey américain.” He knew no French when he arrived in May 1982; now he gets by with ease.

Like Cauthen, Asmussen admires the European approach to his sport. “When you’re associated with racing in America,” he says, “you’re thought to be maybe not quite right. But over here I’m amazed by the respect for racing.” And his impressive record—he is the third-leading jockey in France this year—has earned Asmussen the respect of his confrères.

Oklahoman Darrell McHargue does not fit the glamorous mold of international sports stars. His father was a mechanic in Oklahoma City. Darrell started riding on a neighbor’s quarter-horses when he was a teenager. Then he went off to Florida to try his hand at Thoroughbreds. He finished high school there and rode his first winner, a horse called The Thing to Do, at age 17. For McHargue, the thing to do was to break Cauthen’s earnings record in 1978. His purses totaled $6,188,353.

When horseman Bert Firestone called him last fall and asked him to ride in Ireland, McHargue leapt at the chance. “In Ireland,” says McHargue, “the whole country is attuned to racing.” His salary may not be in a league with Cauthen and Asmussen, but that doesn’t bother Darrell. “Money isn’t my honey,” he says seriously. He and wife Robin, daughter of a trainer, divide their time between their cottage near The Curragh in Irish racing country and a condo in Pasadena, Calif., to which they may return permanently after his contract runs out in November.

Cauthen and Asmussen also intend to make their way back to their home turf sooner or later. “The U.S. will always be home to me,” says Steve. But for now, he—like his colleagues Asmussen and McHargue—is riding high in his home away from home.