Sailing: 'Ainslie could be best ever', says Dalton

As the America's Cup village packed its tents here yesterday at the end of its first exhibition regatta, won by Larry Ellison's BMW Oracle, the hard-earned points on the water were easily outnumbered by the lushing up in the hospitality suites. And as claims of financing talks to keep Britain in the game once more dragged into scepticism, the underdog role was firmly grabbed by debutant South Africa's Shosholoza.

An hour along the coast, on the Iles de Porquerolles, pressing a little flesh and taking part in the altogether less stressful Volvo City Sailing regatta, triple Olympic medallist Ben Ainslie's ears might have been burning a little if he could have heard the terms in which his new boss, Grant Dalton, was talking about his America's Cup future.

Ainslie will join up with Emirates Team New Zealand for the second event in Valencia next month, an occasion boosted by two Italian teams, one of which includes Ainslie's gold-medal buddy Iain Percy. With Team New Zealand still relishing a match-race victory last week over the Alinghi team who gave them a humiliating 5-0 beating to win the Cup last year, Ainslie starts anew, having put his toes in the water with the Seattle-based OneWorld syndicate in Auckland. Then he decided he was better suited to Olympic sailing, where he proved supreme again last month, rather than enduring roles he did not enjoy.

So had his negotiations with Dalton, sent in to keep TNZ alive, included anything approaching assurances on filling the helmsman's role he seeks? "There's no doubt that in future he wants to drive an America's Cup boat, but to do that he's going to need to spend time doing it," Dalton says. So Dalton will send Ainslie on the world match-racing circuit, sometimes with TNZ's skipper, Dean Barker, sometimes on his own account.

"If he continues the way he is now, he could be the best ever in the America's Cup," is Dalton's assessment. "He's certainly the best dinghy sailor since Paul Elvstrom [winner of four Olympic golds]. So it's in our interests to help him develop that and it is part of the deal. If in three years' time it is blatantly obvious he's the better man for the job then he'll get it. For the moment it's Dean's job to keep and Ben's job to get."

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