Sailing: Time for America's Cup challengers to show their mettle

New Zealand await the victors as the Louis Vuitton Cup starts its elimination stages in Auckland today.
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The Independent Online
IT IS TIME to play hard ball on Auckland's Hauraki Gulf today as the 11 challengers for the America's Cup roll out for their third series of races in the Louis Vuitton Cup. The first, in October, counted only one point apiece and allowed all sorts of mistakes and testing. The second, last month, upped the ante to four points a win and contributed not only to a consolidation of the pecking order, but could affect who stays and who goes.

Today the prize is nine points per win and at the end of the 10 races (each has to compete against the others) the cut will be made. Five will be packing up and going home for Christmas and New Year's Eve, the remaining six will spend more time working on improving performance while the rest of the world is indulging in the bash of a lifetime.

Only one boat has not been modified in the past couple of weeks, the Australians, who are doing little more than keeping their seat at the table warm, and there will be three new yachts on the racecourse for this round.

With 19 wins out of 20 starts, the Italians are already experiencing cup fever at home but have chosen to leave their all-conquering boat in the shed and try out a new one - if that is really what they are doing. The usual speculation about bluff and double bluff is rife. Did they always know the first boat was faster than the second, are they now using the time to leap-frog the others as they make speed-boosting modifications or is the second boat, with a narrower and deeper hull, a quicker version of the first?

What is not in doubt is that Patrizio Bertelli, the head of the fashion house Prada which has pumped tens of millions of dollars into the project, is more than happy. He has said the return on his investment has already been made in terms of column inches and broadcast minutes. There is even discussion about where the defence would be staged.

That is just hot air as far as the defending Kiwis are concerned. They are working non-stop to make sure they have their way next February, and few are betting against that. But they are having to take a back seat as the challengers hog the limelight, and a couple of them are also planning to give the Italians a hard time. Not least Paul Cayard, who last whipped up America's Cup fever in Italy when he was skipper, in 1992, of Il Moro di Venezia. He is keeping his second boat in the locker, preferring to continue working with the machine that has put him in fourth place overall, lower than he wants, lower than was expected, but he only has to make that top six and everything starts with a clean sheet on 2 January.

Ahead of him are two other Americans. His fellow San Franciscan Dawn Riley has surprised herself and others by moving into second place. Dennis Conner, from the other end of California, San Diego, is beaming from ear to ear as his helmsman, Kenny Read, has secured third place as Conner himself spends more time plotting, raising money and even finding time to think about an entry in the Volvo Ocean Race (formerly Whitbread) in 2001.

The great inter-American battle was expected to be between Cayard and the mighty New York Yacht Club's Ed Baird. But the massive structural failure which hit Baird's Young America in the last round has left him having to concentrate on keeping his second boat in one piece as frantic repairs are made to the first. Not that Cayard has left him in peace. In addition to war on the water, both are competing fiercely with each other at home for vital funding and sponsorship, though Baird yesterday claimed that their misfortune had struck a supportive chord in American hearts.

Baird is sixth, but has a cushion of a few points. But there is no easy time for him, the draw putting him against the Italians today for his first third-round outing.

Ahead of Baird the Japanese are giving their new boat a run - the old one, said the skipper Peter Gilmour, had a few bumps and bruises. "It's time to retire her," he said.

Fighting just to survive is the fifth American, John Kolius, who has brought his old trial boat out of retirement in a last ditch hope of drumming up some points. It, too, is called Abracadabra 2000, but few expect to see a rabbit emerge from the hat.

Highly unlikely to survive are the Swiss, the Australians, the Spanish and even the French. But at least they are here. Britain last had a boat on the start line in 1986.

LOUIS VUITTON CUP Current standings: 1 Prada (It) 46pts; 2 America True (US) 38; 3 Stars & Stripes (US) 36.5; 4 AmericaOne (US) 36; 5 Nippon Challenge (Japan) 29.5; 6 Young America (US) 24; 7 Spanish Challenge (Sp) 17; 8 Abracadabra 2000 (US) 16; 9 Le Defi 6 Sens (Fr) 14; 10 Young Australia (Aus) 9; 11 Fast 2000 (Swit) 8.