Racing: Asmussen rehearses his Ascot monologue

Richard Edmondson on a stylish rider with few equals in the chattering class
When the Sunday newspaper scribblers kneel at their bedside this week and offer up a prayer about the result of Saturday's King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot only one name will be in their mind. When it comes to quick, meaty quotes to combat absurdly early deadline times there is only one man to have in town: Brian Keith "Cash" Asmussen.

Most of the inmates of the weighing room have the reaction time of a tree stump. Helissio's rider is different. Cash can charm the birds out of the discotheques and along the way he sells himself better than a caged Bangkok dancer. No-one (and this includes the honeymooner) talks a better race.

Asmussen was talking exercise gallops yesterday morning as Helissio, Saturday's short-priced favourite, completed his preparation over nine furlongs of Chantilly's "Les Aigles" trial grounds. "He went very nicely," the American said. "He was relaxed and very happy. I am full of confidence for Ascot, but it is a great field and everything in it deserves plenty of respect as they have all won big events. It is a great race and should be great for the game. I am proud to be playing a small part.''

Cash, dear boy, you have never played a small part in your life. Asmussen's pipe-cleaner physique first came to the fore in 1979 when he won the Eclipse award as North America's leading apprentice. Three years later he was enticed to Europe by Stavros Niarchos and Francois Boutin. Asmussen is the only one of the three who remains above ground. "I do miss my old partner, the maestro Francois Boutin [who died from cancer in February 1995]," he says. "I can't thank him and Stavros Niarchos enough for inviting me to Europe in 1982. It was a great association for me. That not only changed my professional life, it was a major input in my life as a whole.''

Asmussen has won the French championship five times and remains the only foreigner to have done so. And he has achieved it all with a supremely delicate style. While some jockeys, Kieren Fallon for example, ride with a brutish vigour which suggests Lucifer's chariot is in their slipstream, Cash does it all by kidology. This nuance tends to be lost on punters who like to hear horseflesh getting thwacked for their money, and it must be said his technique is easier to appreciate when no financial incentive is involved.

Although he will tell you he can win races from any position, Cash's trademark is the 11th-hour pounce, the outrageous piece of timing. Like Blondin crossing Niagara Falls on the high wire, this is not an accomplishment you can do either quite well or quite badly. It is either breathtaking or catastrophic. And now that Cash is over 35, every error is considered to demonstrate the fallibility of the aged.

The pale rider, however, is not about to retire to Texas. There have always been gruesome tales of how Asmussen manages his weight and not all his methods would be recommended at the village surgery, though he has conquered that particular battle. In addition he is still having fun and earning money, which is not the least of his priorities. Cash has a different relationship than most with his bank manager. When the telephone rings it is he who gives the financial advice.

"I'm not thinking about retirement," the jockey says. "I'm having a good run and I'm still enjoying it. But you can say that I've just spent four fantastic days in Texas with my family for a little R&R and I wouldn't be telling the truth if I said I wasn't torn between being away from my mother country and having a great time in a profession I love in Europe.

"I know you can't have it all but I'm sure as hell going to try. I've definitely been accused of that in my time and rightfully so. I don't think I could look a man in the eye and deny that.

"I've been riding 18 years and I'm coming up on 3,000 winners and 75- plus Group One winners that I've been fortunate to ride for some of the greatest people in the world.''

Some days Cash does not enjoy the prospect of going to work, but then he remembers he is not about to empty bedpans or climb into the colliery cage. Besides, there is nothing yet to replace the chemical rush of a big-race winner. "Sure there are mornings when a guy has to psych himself up because not every day is one you really look forward to," he says. "But you get through three moderate days if you know that on the fourth you are jumping up with the ride on Helissio. That moves me.

"If I don't have what they call the bite then I don't have my edge. I have to wake up and look forward and enjoy it. I've had some awful high times, and I need the mental attitude that I'm going to keep finding them and keeping them. If I lose that I'm no good to myself or anybody else. That makes me function.''

Asmussen is still functioning adequately enough for Enrique Sarasola, Helissio's extraordinary owner. The Spanish businessman is multilingual but for some confusing reason he chooses to speak all of them at the same time. As the horse's performances have done a lot of talking as well this must represent the most loquacious trio in the history of racing.

The jockey believes the team will be holding forth again late on Saturday afternoon. "Singspiel and Pilsudski have a line of form that comes up very good," he says. "Singspiel is one of the best horses in training in the world today and reflects great credit on the Dubai World Cup. It is a young race but its two winners have been Cigar and Singspiel, so it has quickly become established. But I sure wouldn't swap my horse for any of them.

"He definitely ranks with the best I have ever ridden and, without being too pretentious, that is a very distinguished list. We are talking about Suave Dancer, Kingmambo, East Of The Moon, Coup De Genie and Northern Trick, who were all superstars in their own right. Helissio ranks right up there with them.

"The horse has always run well right-handed, so the track is no problem, and I think he's a professional with plenty of experience and on the top of his game. And his morale is right, we'd better put that in there. He thinks he's the man." So does his rider, and sometimes he's right.