Sailing: Italians settle in early for America's Cup

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At least five would-be America's Cup 2000 skippers will be on parade in Auckland Harbour today, taking part in the ceremonial side of the Lipton Anniversary Regatta. However, they have more to think about than waving to the crowds.

Dennis Conner, the America's Cup legend, has flown in to discuss Toshiba's battle plans for the next leg of the Whitbread Round the World Race with co-skipper Paul Standbridge, while Paul Cayard is back from fund-raising for AmericaOne in San Francisco to resume Whitbread duty with race leader EF Language. The fifth leg to Brazil starts on Saturday.

Lawrie Smith, after a week in which his Spirit of Britain syndicate has made another step forward towards participation in 2000, has returned from a 36-hour offshore training session for his new Whitbread navigator Vincent Geake.

The Italian Prada syndicate, skippered by Francesco de Angelis, is here for an extended training period until the end of April. The America's Cup hopefuls have one of three boats bought from Bill Koch's America3 defence syndicate and, just to hone their understanding of local conditions, a fleet of Etchells keelboats.

All the activity has been watched quietly and confidently by the man who took the cup from the Americans - when Conner and Cayard were sharing the defence duties - in San Diego in 1995. Russell Coutts will again lead Team New Zealand in the 2000 defence. He has seen nothing so far to make his knees shake.

But, for those who like a gamble, a quiet pounds 10 on the Italians repeating their 1992 success and being the single challenge from the 12 to 15 syndicates who will again throw their hats in the ring this weekend may pay well.

The men from Milan have the vastly experienced Frenchman Laurent Esquier as project manager. "The Kiwis have a massive home advantage, so there is a lot of catching up to do," he said. "That is why we have to be in early, even though there is a big cost in having the team together and on the road so far out.

"These guys [Team New Zealand] will know exactly how it all works. I think that the six semi-final challengers may all be about equal in speed. It's at that point that local knowledge may make the difference."

Esquier highlighted the problem facing the British and other syndicates still putting financial packages together. "You are going to have to have a boat here in September 1999 and that means shipping a month before," he said. "It takes seven months to build, so you have to be ready in January 1999. That is already less than 12 months away. Time is short."