06/15/2005 11:00PM

Europe's marathon king

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Edward Whitaker/Racing Post
The favored Westerner captures the 2 1/2-mile Ascot Gold Cup.

There's no doubt that Westerner is the best stayer in the world after he captured the 2 1/2-mile Ascot Gold Cup at York on Thursday to give France its first win in the great marathon since Sagaro won the race for the third straight year in 1977.

Victory in the Group 1, $410,000 Gold Cup was hardly unexpected as Westerner went off as the 7-4 favorite. Although jockey Olivier Peslier had to ask for something extra to hold off the challenge of the 33-1 longshot Distinction, who, like Westerner, is a son of Danehill, the winning margin of a neck may have flattered the runner-up.

In any event, Westerner beat one of the best Gold Cup fields in recent history as the vanquished included four-time Irish St. Leger winner Vinnie Roe, who was five lengths back in third, with 2003 Gold Cup winner Mr Dinos in eighth. Papineau, who relegated Westerner to second in last year's race, was an uncharacteristic 16th in the 17-runner field.

The winning time was 4:19.49 on good to firm ground.

Westerner has now won six group races in a row and nine lifetime, all of them between 1 15/16 and 2 1/2 miles. Among those nine are five at the Group 1 level, this Gold Cup, and a pair of doubles in the 2 1/2-mile Prix du Cadran and the 1 15/16-mile Prix Royal-Oak, or French St. Leger. His Royal Ascot triumph completed a big day for owners Guy and Alec Wildenstein and their trainer, Elie Lellouche, who also won the 1 1/4-mile, Group 3 La Coupe at Longchamp with their 4-year-old Artiste Royal.

Earlier at York, where the Royal Meeting is being held this year while a new grandstand is being built at Ascot, Thakafaat outgamed Twyla Tharp after a quarter-mile duel in the Group 2, $236,000 Ribblesdale Stakes for 3-year-old fillies. By Unfuwain out of a dam who is a half- sister to this year's 2000 Guineas winner, Footstepsinthesand, Thakafaat is trained by John Dunlop for Hamdan Al Maktoum. Ridden by Willie Supple to her short head victory, Thakafaat covered the 1 1/2 miles in 2:31.18. The 22-1 outsider. Something Exciting, who had beaten Thakafaat in the listed Lupe Stakes last month prior to finishing second in the English Oaks, was two lengths behind in fourth as the 11-8 favorite.

Royal Ascot at York will conclude on Saturday with the expected return of last year's King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes winner, Doyen, in the 1 1/2-mile, Group 2 Hardwicke Stakes. Godolphin's 5-year-old Doyen has since disappointed in the Irish Champion and the Champion stakes, and will be hard-pressed by Day Flight, recent winner of both the John Porter and Ormonde stakes. Electrocutionist, an easy winner last time of the Group 2 Premio Carlo d'Alessio, is a threat if he makes the trip from Italy, where he is also entered in Sunday's Gran Premio di Milano.

The Group 1 Golden Jubilee Stakes at six furlongs can go to Somnus at the expense of last Sunday's Group 2 Prix du Gros-Chene winner The Trader. A Group 1 winner at both six and seven furlongs, Somnus will also be challenged by Cape of Good Hope from Hong Kong, Keeneland Swan from Japan, as well as the unpredictable Antonius Pius, who is being dropped down from a mile by trainer Aidan O'Brien.