Stars & Stripes bows out

Conner's uphill bid comes to an end in loss to America True

AmericaOne to face Prada

Prada protest is moot as sail-off unnecessary

January 14, 2000|By Bruce Stannard | Bruce Stannard,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

AUCKLAND, New Zealand -- St. Francis Yacht Club's AmericaOne and Italy's Prada will fight it out in the America's Cup challenger finals to determine who will face defender Team New Zealand.

That much became clear today when bad luck and fluky, shifting winds combined to end the hopes of the underdog, Dennis Conner's Stars & Stripes.

Stars & Stripes' helmsman Ken Read saw today's final semifinal match against America True, which was a makeup of a postponed race, as a case of "do or die."

Stars & Stripes is dead -- having lost to Dawn Riley's San Francisco entry by 1 minute, 32 seconds -- but not before it gave the Italians and everyone else in the America's Cup community one heck of a fright.

While a disconsolate Conner left instructions that he wished to be left alone with his crew aboard Stars & Stripes, the race result prompted a spontaneous outpouring of high emotion in the Italian camp.

Under the enormous tricolor flag of Italy, the Prada compound on Auckland's waterfront erupted in a wild Mardi Gras-style party.

Prada's skipper, the usually reserved Neapolitan Francesco de Angelis, described his skin-of-the-teeth entry into the challenger finals as "fantastic, a dream come true."

"We do not underestimate the size of the task that lies before us," he said, "and yet we do feel that we can go on winning. We have no illusions. The Americans will be tough, but we are not afraid of them."

Had Conner's under-funded, one-boat campaign won today, it would have tied Prada for second place and would have been propelled into a sudden-death sail-off tomorrow against Prada.

But after a two-hour delay because of a lack of wind, the start saw Stars & Stripes go left, while America True went right. As luck would have it, there was more wind pressure on the right.

As the breeze, never more than 10 knots, veered and lifted America True, so it knocked Stars and Stripes out of the regatta.

It was a miserable end for what had been a valiant effort.

Stars & Stripes' loss will now almost certainly put an end to the Italian syndicate's attempt to discredit Conner with its allegations of the illegal use of a mainsail, allegedly taken from another American syndicate, the New York Yacht Club's Young America.

The Italian bombshell protest, lobbed into the laps of the International Jury last night, was seen as a desperate last-ditch attempt to distract and upset the Stars & Stripes crew.

Without the benefit of a pack of lawyers, the Stars & Stripes afterguard was obliged to stay up late last night preparing a legal defense against what was an exceptionally serious charge.

If Stars & Stripes had been found guilty of such a breach of America's Cup protocol, the boat could have been disqualified.

The Italian team spokesman, Paolo Martinoni, declined to comment except to say, "sometimes you have to do these things."

But Stars & Stripes tactician, Tom Widden, saw the Italian protest as "a frivolous protest" and "an act of desperation from guys who are being beaten on the water."

There is now the prospect of some really high level racing. The eventual winner of the best-of-nine series will be as well-prepared as any America's Cup challenger.

After four grueling months of racing against the best boats from around the world, the eventual challenger should have a better than even shot at wresting the Cup from the New Zealand defenders.

The Kiwis have been sailing among themselves since they won the Cup in San Diego in 1995, and, although their racing has been hard, there is no way that it could have had the sharp and sometimes bitter edge produced among the challengers.

Paul Cayard and his AmericaOne syndicate has been the favorite since the beginning of this regatta, and now he is still on course to have a shot at winning it all.

AmericaOne has just a touch better boat speed than Prada, but more importantly, Cayard, the quintessential professional sailor, is battle-hardened in a way that sets above virtually every other skipper in Auckland.

On the other hand, the Italians are emotional and psychologically vulnerable. If Cayard can score a couple of wins up front, no one should be surprised if Italy's $80 million campaign, provided by fashion designer Patrizio Bertelli, crumbles.

On the upside, however, the presence of an Italian contender guarantees a continuation of European interest in the America's Cup, and that very much pleases the organizers.

"We know we have a very fast boat, an excellent crew," de Angelis said. "No skipper can ask for more. We will do our best. That's all anyone can ask of us."

Today's result

America True def. Stars & Stripes by 1: 32

Yesterday's results

Stars & Stripes def. AmericaOne by 22 seconds.

Le Defi BTT def. America True by 1: 14.

Prada def. Nippon by 2: 01.

Challenger finals

AmericaOne vs. Prada (Best of nine)

Jan. 25 -- Race 1 Feb. 1* -- Race 6

Jan. 26 -- Race 2 Feb. 2* -- Race 7

Jan. 27 -- Race 3 Feb. 3* -- Race 8

Jan. 29 -- Race 4 Feb. 4* -- Race 9

Jan. 30 -- Race 5 *-If necessary

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