09/05/2002 11:00PM

Rock's biggest test yet


Rock of Gibraltar goes after his seventh straight Group 1 victory in the one-mile Prix du Moulin de Longchamp on Sunday.

But Aidan O'Brien has warned the betting public that Rock of Gibraltar may not be at his very best because the colt was laid up briefly with the cough that ravaged the trainer's Ballydoyle yard throughout the summer.

In his most recent victories, Rock of Gibraltar has defeated Hawk Wing, Landseer, Century City, and Noverre. In Banks Hill, he will be meeting on Sunday probably the best horse he has ever faced.

But Banks Hill, the winner on Aug. 18 of the Prix Jacques le Marois, has two hurdles to overcome. The first is the possibility of soft ground. The second is the loss of her regular rider, Olivier Peslier.

The going at Longchamp on Friday was good to soft. With fair weather predicted in Paris for the weekend, Banks Hill should get the good ground she needs, but even if the turf remains good to soft, she is likely to run. Teddy Beckett, racing manager for her owner, Juddmonte Farms, said on Thursday that she would not go in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes on Sept. 28 because that race comes "too close" to the Breeders' Cup.

Richard Hughes will deputize for the injured Peslier, who underwent surgery on his broken collarbone on Thursday. If Rock of Gibraltar, a 3-year-old son of Danehill, is not at his best, he will be vulnerable to an in-form Banks Hill, but only if the ground is good or firmer.

Any rain would benefit the mud-loving Gossamer. Trained by Luca Cumani, the filly won the Fillies Mile and the Irish 1000 Guineas on soft ground, but was unplaced on good to firm in both the 1000 Guineas at Newmarket and the Coronation Stakes. A pair of John Hammond trainees will challenge, but neither of them - Proudwings, third in both the Prix d'Astarte and the Prix Messidor, nor Execute, fourth in the Prix d'Ispahan - is a serious contender.

Horses-for-courses theorists should note that Rock of Gibraltar took his lone start at Longchamp last fall in the Grand Criterium, while Banks Hill is winless in three Longchamp tries. That statistic may tip the very delicate Moulin scales in favor of the "Rock."