Conner committed to cornering Cup

Stuart Alexander reports from San Diego on one man's American dream
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Although Bill Koch certainly knows how to make his presence felt, Dennis Conner is still the big man on the America's Cup block, but even he has been surprised that he is still not just in the hunt but leading his rivals a merry dance. In the continuing game that is the America's Cup, however, a short-term loss can turn into a long-term gain.

He knows that if San Diego again defends successfully then he will be right on the spot, with a compound, two boats, a loyal staff and an experienced crew when the fray starts again in 1999. And if the cup goes to New Zealand, then he, perhaps more than most, is ready to mount a crusade down under to bring it back, perhaps not to San Diego, but to certainly to America.

In the 1992 contest to defend on behalf of the United States, Conner was short of funds at the crucial time when he might have built a second boat and was facing Koch's $60m (about £40m) entry of three new boats. Even so, he managed to hang on much longer than Koch ever imagined, demonstrating that the best boats also need the best sailors to achieve their full potential.

That encouraged his supporters enough to put in fresh funds and this time he was expected to build a second new boat, even though he always said he would only build one. He did as he said, but he did build again one of the most formidable crews, inviting an Olympic silver medallist, Jim Brady, to join the afterguard with his old friend and tactician, Tom Whidden. Many thought that perhaps Brady was being groomed for the time when Team Dennis Conner would become more of a fronting and managing role for Conner, an opportunity for him to ease himself out of the competitive driving seat.

This theory was upset when Conner then added Paul Cayard to the equation. A Californian who lives in San Diego, Cayard had, like Conner, a top Star boat pedigree, had his America's Cup grounding with Tom Blackaller, and in 1992 skippered the Italian entry and eventual sole challenger, Il Moro di Venezia.

Cayard has made no secret of his wish to form Team PC, but felt it was better to be on the inside than the outside after both a repeat Italian berth and a French ride proved impossible. He has lately bloomed into steering Stars & Stripes most of the time and is looking increasingly like the dominant American at the back of any of the three defender candidates.

Conner, meanwhile, can also plan for Auckland. It provides a tempting opportunity, for he has set up the USA Yacht Club in New York and could undoubtedly challenge through that. He has strong links with the top corporate boardrooms in the US and an appetite for making sponsorship deals with them. He has a long-term deal with Sears Roebuck, which could merchandise clothes and much more through their large number of outlets and mail order catalogue clients.

Racing at 2pm in Auckland could be screened live on US television between 7pm and 10pm and, because there would probably be four or five US challenges spread across the country, there would be a much stronger reason for the networks to carry it.

So there is a viewpoint which sees more glory for Conner as a challenger than a defender as well as, in this commercial age, that being a much better money-spinner.

The America's Cup is what Conner does best, even though he is contemplating a bid for the US Olympic team next year in the three-man Soling, and with it the possibility of adding another medal to the bronze he won in the two-man Tempest in Canada in 1976.

Most of all, every time you think Conner may be down, he bounces back up again. The way things were going, and he was not happy about that, he would already have been out of the Citizen Cup finals but a deal to keep all three in, thought to have emanated from a nervous Koch camp worried about its own elimination, went his way as Koch's team won what would have been the deciding race.

He then went on to win his first three races, the crew and Cayard displaying a purple patch which the opposition could not counter. And he will win more America's Cup races. At the moment he is just not sure where.