06/21/2001 12:00AM

Royal Rebel prevails in Gold Cup

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ASCOT, England - Royal Rebel and Persian Punch provided 72,589 Ladies Day racegoers at Royal Ascot Thursday with a dramatic duel as Royal Rebel collared the pacesetting Persian Punch in the stretch of the 2 1/2-mile Ascot Gold Cup to win by a head.

Approaching the half-mile pole, the 9-year-old Persian Punch and Richard Quinn opened up a six-length lead on the field in an attempt to steal the prestigious Group 1 marathon.

After Frankie Dettori and Marienbard took a failed run at the leader, Johnny Murtagh waited until the quarter pole before launching a challenge with Royal Rebel, a 5-year-old Robellino gelding trained by Mark Johnston. They soon had a slight lead over Persian Punch, but the grand old warhorse refused to give in. For a brief moment at the 16th pole it appeared as if Persian Punch would get back up, but his younger foe proved at least as game.

The final time 4:03. Marienbard weakened late to finish fifth as Jardines Lookout got up for third by a short head from the 3-1 choice San Sebastian, five lengths behind the winner.

The victory was doubly dramatic for Royal Rebel's owner, Peter Savill. The Chairman of the British Horseracing Board has been embroiled in a contentious and highly visible battle with myriad branches of the racing industry over the future of the funding of British racing.

As for Royal Rebel, he appeared to go off form after his victory in the Goodwood Cup last summer. After two poor starts this season, Johnston decided to take blinkers off for the Gold Cup as Royal Rebel had been working well without them. Their removal proved to be just what the doctor ordered.

'Sahara' slews rivals in Ribblesdale

A subpar renewal of the 1 1/2-mile Group 2 Ribblesdale Stakes for 3-year-old fillies may have produced a budding star in Sahara Slew.

Murtagh, who had taken the St. James's Palace Stakes aboard Black Minnaloushe on Tuesday, was the engineer of the Seattle Slew filly's come-from-behind score over Nafisah. A 14-1 shot, the John Oxx-trainee was coming off a maiden win at Leopardstown, but among the 13 fillies she beat there were five maidens and three other maiden winners.

Oxx said Sahara Slew would challenge English Oaks winner Imagine in the Irish Oaks at the Curragh on July 13.

It's Tabor & O'Brien, again

No day at Royal Ascot this year would be complete without an appearance in the winner's enclosure by Aidan O'Brien and Michael Tabor.

On Thursday, the Group 3 Norfolk Stakes for 2-year-olds was the prize and it was Johannesburg who claimed it.

The 1.35-1 favorite, a Hennessy half-brother to both Tale of the Cat and two-time Group 1 winner Minardi, powered to a 1 1/4-length victory over Waterside while getting the five furlongs in what for Ascot is an acceptable 1:02.18.

Harmonic Way shows the way

Harmonic Way (10-1), winner of the six-furlong Wokingham Handicap at the Royal Meeting last year, posted a one-length victory over Godolphin's 6-1 choice Three Points in the Group 2 Cork and Orrery Stakes.

The Lion Cavern 6-year-old won a listed race at Windsor last time. This was the first group race triumph for the Roger Charlton-trainee.

Savill: 50-50 chance of BHB deal

A British Horseracing Board deal with the Go Racing consortium, which was expected to bring in greatly increased revenue to racing, seemed doomed Sunday night after a year of delicate negotiations when the BHB board voted against the plan.

However, Savill has kept all of the principle parties at the table through all-night sessions this Royal Ascot week. After the Gold Cup Savill said that "chances of a renewed deal being successful on Thursday night were even money."