09/09/2002 12:00AM

Rock of Gibraltar wins again


Rock of Gibraltar survived a crack on the face from a whip to take the Prix du Moulin de Longchamp on Sunday and become the first horse to win seven successive European Group 1 races.

Dispelling fears that he might not be fully fit because of the coughing which brought Aidan O'Brien's Ballydoyle yard to a near standstill this summer, the 3-year-old son of Danehill was his usual invincible self as he accelerated under Michael Kinane to catch Banks Hill, herself a daughter of Danehill, at the sixteenth pole on his way to a half-length victory.

Richard Hughes, substituting for the injured Olivier Peslier aboard Banks Hills, accidentally hit Rock of Gibraltar with his whip as the winner was ranging up alongside. The incident stopped him for a stride or two but he quickly recovered to assert his superiority. Sent off as the 3-5 choice with his pacesetting entrymate Sahara Desert, his time for the mile was 1:39.30 on good ground.

O'Brien wasted no time in confirming Rock of Gibraltar's ultimate goal this year as the Breeders' Cup Mile, but added that he was still considering the one-mile Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at Ascot on Sept. 28 as well. If he runs at Ascot, where he won the St. James's Palace Stakes in June, he would once again face Gossamer, the Irish 1000 Guineas winner who finished fast to get up for third, 1-1/2 lengths behind Banks Hill. The latter, who led for half a furlong before being corralled by the "Rock", lost nothing in defeat, but she is unlikely to run again before defending her Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf title.

In victory, Rock of Gibraltar surpassed the record of six consecutive Group 1 victories set by Mill Reef in 1971-72. Owned jointly by Susan Magnier and Manchester United soccer manager Alex Ferguson, he has now won 10-of-12 lifetime starts for earnings of $1,668,037.

It would have seemed impossible for the 1 1/4-mile Group 1 Irish Champion Stakes to come up with a more thrilling finish than the heartstopper produced last year by Fantastic Light and Galileo, but the blanket finish of Grandera, Hawk Wing and Best Of The Bests did just that. No sooner had Hawk Wing put his head in front than Frankie Dettori put Grandera's nose down on the line.

Grandera has now accumulated 28 points in the World Series Racing Championship, sixteen points ahead of his nearest challengers. As his next two races are expected to be the Cox Plate in Australia on Breeders' Cup Day and the Hong Kong Cup on Dec. 15, a victory in either could clinch a fourth consecutive World Series championship for Godolphin.

Earlier at Leopardstown, the Dermot Weld-trained filly Dress To Thrill booked her ticket to Keeneland's Queen ElIzabeth II Challenge Cup with a one-length victory over Marionnaud in the Group 3 Matron Stakes in which Sophisticat was sixth. Yet another daughter of Danehill, the 2-1 Dress To Thrill covered the mile in 1:40.10.

The triumph of Invincible Spirit, who jumped up at 25-1 to take the six-furlong Group 1 Haydock Park Sprint Cup on Saturday by a nose from Malhub, is yet another indication of the weak sprint division in Europe. With Group 1 winners Continent sixth and Landseer thirteenth, American sprinters have nothing to fear from a European challenge in the Breeders' Cup Sprint this year.