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 -- The finals of the America's Cup challenger series are set.

Paul Cayard's AmericaOne syndicate will meet Italian fashion designer Patrizio Bertelli's Prada for the right to race against defender Team New Zealand next month.

Though St. Francis Yacht Club's AmericaOne and Prada have been the favorites to meet in the best-of-nine challenger finals, which begin Jan. 25, it took one final, but futile attempt today by Dennis Conner's Stars & Stripes to have a say in the finals pairings.

Conner's blue-hulled boat from San Diego's Cortez Yacht Club fell to Dawn Riley's America True by 1 minute, 32 seconds. The boats were racing in the last of the challenger semifinal duels, a makeup match from an earlier postponement.

Bad luck and fluky, shifting winds combined to end the hopes of Stars & Stripes. Today's race, which was held up for two hours while awaiting wind on the Hauraki Gulf course, was contested in light conditions, unsuitable for a boat Conner had designed to thrive in heavy wind.

At the start, Stars & Stripes went to the left side of the course, while America True went right. As luck would have it, there was more pressure on the right. As the breeze, never more than 10 knots, veered and lifted America True to a big lead, it also knocked Stars & Stripes out of the regatta.

A victory by Stars & Stripes would have propelled it into a sudden-death sail-off tomorrow with Prada by virtue of tying the Italians for second place with seven standings points. But first, an International Jury would have had to hear a protest lodged by the Italians, alleging Conner's boat used a sail originally designed for the New York Yacht Club's Young America syndicate.

Had the jury upheld the protest, Conner's team could have been penalized a standings point or more, or even bumped out of the competition altogether, clearing the way for Prada to advance to the finals.

Had the jury thrown out the protest, the sail-off would have gone off as scheduled, and the Prada-Stars & Stripes survivor would have gone on to face AmericaOne.

All that is now academic.

The final showdown between AmericaOne and Italy's Prada promises to produce an America's Cup challenger that will have a better than even shot at defeating the New Zealand defender.

This is the dream scenario the challengers have been hoping for: one that maintains European and American interest in the outcome and at the same time offers a real prospect of bringing the Auld Mug -- the symbol of international yachting supremacy -- back to the United States.

AmericaOne is on a roll, and in the hands of Cayard, one of the world's most accomplished helmsmen and battle-hardened in a way that sets him head and shoulders above virtually every other skipper in Auckland. Every time AmericaOne leaves the dock, it gets faster and faster, and it will be the favorite to go all the way.

The syndicate is using its new boat, USA 61, and Cayard and his crew are still on a steep learning curve as they discover all the subtle little things they can tweak to bring it to its best.

Prada is also exceptionally fast, but it also looks brittle, and its crew, led by Neapolitan skipper Francesco de Angelis, appears emotionally vulnerable -- a psychological disadvantage that is not helped by the ranting and raving it gets from Bertelli, the guy who is paying the bills.

Where Cayard still has the capacity to lift his game, to improve his boat speed, the Italians appear to have reached their peak.

On the other hand, the Italians do have one undeniable advantage over the Americans -- money.

In this competition, money equals speed. The Italian challenge is being funded entirely by Bertelli, one of the richest men in Europe. He is reported to have spent between $50 million and $80 million on his multiboat campaign.

The Italian boat surely will have the best of everything, including the finest American-made sails money can buy.

Cayard is not exactly short of cash either. He has been bankrolled to the tune of $32 million, but it will be interesting to see what, if any, extra support flows in now that he has a good chance of being the challenger and bringing the cup to San Francisco Bay, the St. Francis Yacht Club's home port.

Meanwhile, the outcome of today's showdown between Stars & Stripes and America True means the end of Conner's valiant attempt to seize the challenger's mantle with a low-budget, one-boat campaign.

Conner was not on the boat and has not been aboard throughout this semifinal series, but his highly professional crew, led by tactician Tom Whidden, helmsman Ken Read and navigator Peter Isler, hung in there to the last race.

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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