Stars & Stripes back from brink

It topples AmericaOne, sets up probable sail-off

January 13, 2000|By Bruce Stannard | Bruce Stannard,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

AUCKLAND, New Zealand -- They're calling it the greatest comeback since Lazarus.

Dennis Conner's Stars & Stripes, the underdog in this America's Cup campaign, has bounced back from the brink of elimination to topple points leader and challenger finalist AmericaOne, setting the scene for a probable sudden-death sail-off against Italy's Prada. That race, expected to be contested Saturday, will determine AmericaOne's opponent in a best-of-nine series to determine the America's Cup challenger.

Stars & Stripes, which had to defeat skipper Paul Cayard's AmericaOne today and then beat America True in a makeup race tomorrow to force the sail-off, turned back Cayard time and time again in posting a 22-second victory over the San Francisco boat.

Conner's crew got a jump on AmericaOne at the start and built a 45-second lead after two of the six legs of the race. But the blue-hulled racer from San Diego's Cortez Yacht Club had to fight off Cayard during the remaining four legs, ultimately holding off the favored and heavily financed syndicate from St. Francis Yacht Club in San Francisco.

The victory, coupled with today's easy win by Italy's Prada over Japan's Nippon by 2 minutes, 1 second, means that if Stars & Stripes beats America True tomorrow, both Stars & Stripes and Prada will finish the challenger semifinal round with seven points each, forcing the sail-off. AmericaOne is atop the standings with eight points.

With strong easterly winds and 5-foot seas set to continue for tomorrow, the indications are that Conner's one-boat campaign will advance Saturday to the clash that no one would have predicted at the start of this regatta.

A Stars & Stripes-Prada sail-off has a David and Goliath quality. Although Conner has struggled to raise some $12 million, barely enough to fund a one-boat campaign, Prada is embarrassed with riches.

While Conner took a mortgage on his San Diego house, Italian businessman Patrizio Bertelli spent $50 million on his campaign. That figure has been reported to be as high as $80 million.

Conner has gambled on big winds, and today that gamble paid off. Stars & Stripes is optimized for the conditions that prevailed today, 18-knot easterlies and lumpy seas that ran up to 5 feet and made conditions wet and dangerous. In these conditions, Stars & Stripes is formidable. Today, it showed itself superior to AmericaOne upwind and down.

There are cynics who prefer to believe that AmericaOne rolled over and played dead today, allowing Stars & Stripes to edge closer to its showdown with the Italians.

The rationale is that AmericaOne would prefer to see the potentially weaker Stars & Stripes in the challenger finals to give itself a better shot at ultimately becoming the America's Cup challenger.

But Cayard is a sportsman first and foremost, and it reflects no credit upon his reputation to suggest that he was in some way running dead.

Cayard says he is convinced that he is still on a steep learning curve with his new boat, USA 61, and that he will be able to go on ramping-up, improving just a little with each outing.

Serious consideration had been given to staying ashore. He had already qualified for the finals, so he did not have to race. It was argued that the smart thing to do would be to stay on the beach and not risk his assets. But that decision turned largely on the weather. If it had been blowing really hard, chances are AmericaOne would have remained at the dock.

"I'd hate to come back with a stump instead of a mast," Cayard said before racing today. "I don't have six masts racked up on the side of my shed."

If Cayard had stayed ashore, however, he would have taken a lot of heat from the media and his rivals. For Cayard, who is known as "a real Boy Scout" and someone who is personally dedicated to fixing the America's Cup as a sporting event, this was not an option.

"If you start to play games like that, they always come back to bite you," Cayard said.

He made it clear he really does not care who he races in the challenger finals. He said he was going all out today to win.

It also says a lot about the aura that surrounds Conner that on the eve of this race no one was prepared to bet against Stars & Stripes.

"No one bets against Dennis," said an AmericaOne insider, "because time and time again he's come back. No one should ever count Dennis out. OK, he's got a one-trick pony, just one boat that goes well in heavy air. But he's still hanging in there. You have to admire the guy's grit."

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