SAILING-Oracle and New Zealand face off in America's Cup finals

SAN FRANCISCO, Sept 6 Sat Sep 7, 2013 2:21pm EDT

SAN FRANCISCO, Sept 6 (Reuters) - The 34th America's Cup sailing regatta enters its final stretch with the kick off of racing on San Francisco Bay on Saturday, with billionaire Larry Ellison's Oracle Team USA, hobbled by a cheating penalty, trying to fend off a formidable challenge for the famous silver trophy by Emirates Team New Zealand.

The Cup finals, a best-of-17 series that kicks off with the first starting signal scheduled at 1:15 p.m PDT (2015 GMT), culminate a year of preliminary racing plagued by controversies including dangerous catamarans, a fatal accident and accusations of mismanagement.

The latest setback came on Tuesday, when an international jury docked Oracle two points and kicked three team members out of the event for adding illegal weight to boats used in a previous preparatory Cup competition.

The penalties, unprecedented in the history of the 162-year-old event, are a big boost for New Zealand, which demolished other would-be challengers in qualifying races in July and August.

Bookmakers see the Kiwis as favorites to take the America's Cup from Oracle although, in a twist of fate, they are now up against one of their country's most accomplished sailors.

Oracle will need to win 11 races to win the series, while New Zealand will only need to win nine. Oracle will also be sailing without a key crew member, Dirk de Ridder, a 40-year-old Dutchman who was banished from the event for his role in the weight scandal.

The debacle first came to light in July, when 45-foot Oracle catamarans that had been used for a regatta known as the America's Cup World Series of Racing - and were raced again last week in a youth competition - were found to have illegal bags of lead and resin wedged into their frames.

In most countries, sailboat racing is a niche sport, and this year's America's Cup so far has done little to change that. Ellison, who won the cup in 2010, and with it the right to set the rules for this year's races, hoped to make the competition more accessible to everyday sports fans with super-fast, high-tech 72-foot boats called AC72s sailing close to shore on the picturesque Bay.

But the regatta stumbled from the start, with high costs scaring off many challengers and a fatal training accident in May throwing the four-team competition into chaos.

Sailing is not a big draw for US sports fans and the turnout in viewing areas set up along the Bay to watch the races has fallen short of expectations, with few local residents showing interest in the regatta let alone rooting for Oracle.

But the sport is a major passtime in New Zealand. That country first won the Cup in 1995 and then successfully defended the Cup in 2000 under the leadership of Wellington-born skipper Russell Coutts.

Coutts was lured away by Swiss biotechnology billionaire Ernesto Bertarelli to take helm of Alinghi. He took the Cup from New Zealand in 2003, then switched to Oracle and helped that team win the Cup in 2010. He has won the America's Cup four times and never lost.

On the water on Saturday, Oracle's catamaran will be skippered by Australian James Spithill, who also skippered Oracle's boat in its 2010 Cup victory.

Emirates Team New Zealand's AC72 will be skippered by Dean Barker, who in qualifying races leading up to Saturday was aggressive against Italy's Luna Rossa in crucial positioning ahead of race starts.

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