02/15/2006 1:00AM

No rust after nine years off

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Proven Cure, winning a turf stakes at Sam Houston last April, won his 2006 debut last month at age 12.

Proven Cure, winning a turf stakes at Sam Houston last April, won his 2006 debut last month at age 12.

When jockey Tony McNeil returned to race riding in September following a nine-year layoff, it was at the behest of Cash Asmussen, the former champion jockey who years ago became close friends with McNeil when the two were riding in New York.

McNeil's return was launched at Retama Park near San Antonio, and he is now riding for Asmussen at the current Sam Houston Race Park meet in Houston. For the past five years, McNeil has been breaking young horses in Laredo, Texas, with Asmussen.

"Most of the horses I'm riding are owned by Cash," said McNeil. "He said, 'I want you to take your tack out and ride them for me.' The first couple of horses that we ran won. It was really good.

"I had been getting on a number of head on the farm, so I was fit when I rode my first race. I didn't even get tired."

McNeil, 49, broke his femur in a three-horse spill at Remington Park in April 1996. He made a brief return to riding five months later, but was advised to give his leg more time to heal. He did, and later went to work as the clerk of scales at Remington before joining Asmussen in Laredo.

At the farm, McNeil is involved in preparing young horses for sales in Hong Kong and for the track. Many of them are sent to Steve Asmussen, the brother of Cash and the leading trainer in wins in North America in 2005.

McNeil has won with 10 of 49 mounts since making his comeback on Sept. 1. He has also had eight seconds and six thirds, while riding horses trained by both Cheryl Asmussen, Cash's wife, and Steve Asmussen.

Friday night, McNeil will be in action at Sam Houston for Cheryl Asmussen when he rides Far Too Grand, a leading contender in the third race.

McNeil's son, Bryan, is a jockey based in Oklahoma.

"One of these days we want to hook up and ride against each other," said McNeil.

* Proven Cure, who won his 12-year-old debut on Jan. 8, will make his first start since then on Friday night in the first race at Sam Houston. He is the favorite for the six-furlong allowance. Trainer John Locke has given the mount to Quincy Hamilton.