Knife-edge racing keeps the quest for the Cup intriguing

PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 April, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 17 April, 1995, 12:00am

ON A great day of racing, the Aussies pulled a Kiwi out of the hat, while Stars & Stripes sailed to a nail-biting win over PACT 95 to stay right on course to earn the right to defend the America's Cup for the San Diego Yacht Club. It was something short of magic, but oneAustralia waved the wand on Saturday (Sunday morning Hong Kong time) and pulled off a stunning two boat-length win over the previously unbeaten Team New Zealand in the Challenger Series for the Louis Vuitton Cup.

The tension and excitement, which made it one of the most exciting days of racing in this series, was extended to the Defender Series where Dennis Conner's Stars & Stripes edged out PACT 95's Young America by just one second to tie for the overall lead in the three-way battle. Stars & Stripes have now not lost since the finals began and retain the psychological edge over their rivals, who also include the mostly-women's team of Mighty Mary, in this round robin group. Conner's team have three points and are tied with Young America while the women trail behind by a point. Saturday's win will be a crucial one for Stars & Stripes.

But whether the same can be said about the challengers, remains to be seen. Is it the much-needed shot of adrenalin for oneAustralia, or a false dawn? As long as Saturday's weather conditions prevail (winds of 14 knots and choppy seas), the oneAustralia team think they have a chance. That's provided they get the perfect start and sail the perfect race.

All three factors came right on Saturday for oneAustralia who led from the start in a race where the two yachts were never more than 18 seconds apart. For the first time, Team New Zealand have lost in the water. Going into Saturday's race, they had an unbelievable record of 35-0 over a four-month period of racing. In these 35 races the Kiwis however conceded one of their wins to oneAustralia on a protest. That proud record ended on Saturday, thanks to the brilliant helmsmanship of Rod Davis and an uncharacteristic pre-race error by Black Magic's skipper Russell Coutts.

'The short version is that I stuffed the start up. The long version is that I really stuffed the start up,' said a chastened Coutts afterwards. All the experts had written off the chances of oneAustralia taking a win off Team New Zealand in the best-of-nine series. But Saturday's victory, leaves the score at 3-1. Still, the experts, are wagging their sagacious heads, and say that this was just a flash in the pan. The numbers will back them. The Kiwis need to win only two of the remaining five races.

The Aussies have to win four. In horse-racing you would call it winning by a nose. That was how close Stars & Stripes victory over Young America was. Like oneAustralia, Team Dennis Conner led all the way in a savage tacking duel.

'This is what racing is all about. I would like to think that the end result would mean that the defence is getting stronger,' said Conner. Many people already believe that the upstart challengers from New Zealand will sweep the America's Cup with contemptuous ease.