Sailing-Oracle and New Zealand in bitter America's Cup battle

SAN FRANCISCO, Sept 21 Sat Sep 21, 2013 1:59pm EDT

SAN FRANCISCO, Sept 21 (Reuters) - Emirates Team New Zealand's America's Cup campaign that a week ago looked all but won has turned into a bitter battle against Oracle Team USA, which has repeatedly denied the Kiwis the final point they need.

After struggling for much of the regatta's final series in San Francisco, the team owned by Oracle Corp. co-founder Larry Ellison has gained momentum against Emirates Team New Zealand, refusing since Thursday to let the Kiwis win the one race that would give them the trophy.

Oracle staved off elimination on Friday, catching a huge break when the day's first race suffered from a lack of wind and was abandoned for exceeding the time limit, with New Zealand far ahead. Oracle then came back to win a second race in stronger breezes.

"Luck is a great thing. Luck beats skill every time," New Zealand's frustrated tactician Ray Davies later told reporters.

That victory trimmed New Zealand's advantage in the best-of-17 series to 8-3, with two more races scheduled for Saturday.

Until Friday the regatta had been dogged by winds that often exceeded the limits set by the organizers, which were lowered for safety reasons after a sailor died when one of the 72-foot America's Cup catamarans capsized during practice in May.

The wind limit rule forced five race cancellations since the America's Cup finals began two weeks ago, and the two teams have bickered about raising the threshold.

The Kiwis dominated the early matches of the final series and appeared poised to easily reclaim the trophy they lost in 2003. But Oracle has succeeded in shifting the momentum with boat changes and improved tacking, and the two teams now appear remarkably even.

"We're in a battle now. Honestly, we both want to kill each other, but that's sport," Oracle skipper Jimmy Spithill said of rival skipper Dean Barker, the two sitting beside each other at a post-race press conference.

"At match point, it's almost like we get the best out of our boys when they're under pressure," Spithill said.

Following alterations it made to its AC72 catamaran, Oracle is now seen as having a slight advantage over the Kiwi boat in strong winds.

Oracle sent a letter this week to the New Zealand team suggesting the wind limits be increased in order to avoid more delays, a proposal the Kiwis flatly rejected.

Ellison's team won the America's Cup in Valencia, Spain in 2010 and with it the right to set the rules for this year's competition, including choosing to race on the AC72s and to hold the regatta on windy San Francisco Bay.

The Kiwis first won the America's Cup in 1995 and successfully defended it in 2000 before losing the trophy three years later to Swiss biotechnology billionaire Ernesto Bertarelli's Alinghi in a disastrous campaign that left the team in shambles.

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