Bil­lion­aire Could Bankroll U.S. to Win

The Washington Post Sunday - - Sports - By An­gus Phillips

VA­LEN­CIA, Spain, April 14 — In this gloomy city where the sun hasn’t shone in a week, the 32nd Amer­ica’s Cup starts Mon­day. Around the har­bor, shore teams are putting fi­nal touches on slip­pery race yachts as sailors con­front the jit­ters. The pres­sure fi­nally is on. In three weeks, seven of the 11 Cup chal­lengers will be elim­i­nated.

Many crew­men have trained two years or more for this make- Round Robins When: Where: What: or-break month. Then there’s Larry El­li­son, bil­lion­aire owner of the lone U.S.-flagged chal­lenger, BMW Or­a­cle. El­li­son, 62, ar­rived Fri­day the 13th from wher­ever it is that bil­lion­aires do their thing and set up shop aboard his per- sonal ocean liner, Ris­ing Sun, an­chored off­shore.

El­li­son hasn’t been on his Cup boat since last June, when he dropped in for one of the pre­lim­i­nary “Acts” staged in the run-up to the big event. In the 10 months since, 11 teams have trained hard, some prac­ti­cally non­stop, to hone their skills and se­lect the best sailor for each of the 17 jobs aboard.

El­li­son bankrolls the No. 2rated chal­lenger team. On Mon­day, he’ll step aboard BMW Ora-

cle and fill a role he hasn’t had time to bother with since last sum­mer. And just what might that role be?

“He drives a fair bit,” said vet­eran Cup cam­paigner Peter Isler, BMW Or­a­cle’s nav­i­ga­tor. “It’s a lit­tle dif­fer­ent, hav­ing a key crew mem­ber come in so late, but as far as we’re con­cerned, it’s great. It’s his cam­paign, why shouldn’t he?”

On pa­per, BMW Or­a­cle’s skip­per-helms­man is New Zealan­der Chris Dick­son, a sea­soned cam­paigner who headed two Kiwi Cup ef­forts and one from Ja­pan be­fore sign­ing on with El­li­son for the 2003 re­gatta. Isler says Dick­son calls the shots and any de­ci­sion to hand over the helm is cleared through him.

But Isler ex­pects the owner to have the wheel quite a bit in up­com­ing weeks, “maybe even all the time in some races.” Isler isn’t wor­ried. “He’s been sail­ing a lot,” the nav­i­ga­tor said of his boss. “He’s been match-race train­ing with the guys in Swedish Match 40s [a smaller class of boat] in Cal­i­for­nia. He’s stay­ing sharp, and Chris talks to him quite a bit, so he’s def­i­nitely in the loop.

“He’s a sharp guy, he asks good ques­tions. It’s fun to have him on the boat.”

Whether it stays fun re­mains to be seen. In the Amer­ica’s Cup, where dol­lars by the mil­lion fly out the win­dow ev­ery day, the only kind of fun that holds up long-term is the win­ning kind. There is no sec­ond place, as Queen Vic­to­ria al­legedly was told by an aide back in 1851, when the yacht Amer­ica stole the sil­ver ewer away from Eng­land.

Can a bil­lion­aire busi­ness­man prance in and hold his own against the best pro­fes­sional big-boat skip­pers in the world? The ev­i­dence is in­con­clu­sive. Ted Turner drove his Coura­geous to a suc­cess­ful Cup de­fense back in 1977, be­fore the era of pro­fes­sional sailors. Baron Mar­cel Bich got lost in the fog at the helm of France around the same time.

Kansas oil­man Bill Koch was ridiculed all the way to the win­ner’s cir­cle when he steered Amer­ica3 in 1992, shar­ing time at the helm with Olympic gold medal­ist Buddy Melges. Koch, who by all ac­counts was close to clue­less on the boat, in­sisted his de­sign team would build a racer so fast, even he could win with it. They did, and he did.

But that was then. No one in the 2007 Cup ap­pears to have a boat sig­nif­i­cantly quicker than any other in the top half of the chal­lenger fleet. Af­ter 15 years of de­vel­op­ment, high-tech In­ter­na­tional Amer­ica’s Cup Class 80-foot­ers have been op­ti­mized to the point they are nearly equal in per­for­mance. Koch’s first-gen­er­a­tion de­sign, by con­trast, was a rocket com­pared with ev­ery­thing else.

Now comes El­li­son, with tens of mil­lions of his dol­lars in­vested in BMW Or­a­cle and the hopes of Amer­i­can yachts­men and sailors from his home har­bor, San Fran­cisco, rid­ing with him. Can he win?

“He’s done some match-rac­ing on the pro cir­cuit and he beat some boats,” Isler said with a smile. “He’s com­ing into a prac­ticed, well­trained team. He’s a smart guy. You might not see him at the wheel in the prestart when we race [topranked] Emi­rates Team New Zealand or [No. 3] Luna Rossa, but against China or Ger­many, it wouldn’t sur­prise me.”

El­li­son won’t be the only celebrity on the race­course Mon­day. New Zealand Prime Min­is­ter He­len Clark will ride on the Kiwi boat as the non­par­tic­i­pat­ing 18th crewmem­ber. Skip­per Dean Barker, asked how he would ad­dress the PM, said he wasn’t sure, but he promised to take pains not to douse her. “She won’t be happy to get wet,” he said.

Mean­time, ac­tress Demi Moore is sched­uled to lend her charm to Sun­day night’s pre­race party given by Luna Rossa boss Pa­trizio Bertelli, who runs the Mi­lan-based fash­ion house Prada with wife Mi­uc­cia Prada.

Miss­ing from most fes­tiv­i­ties for the first time in three years will be Swiss bil­lion­aire Ernesto Bertarelli and his Alinghi team. The Cup de­fend­ers, who won the tro­phy in 2003 in New Zealand, par­tic­i­pated in all 13 pre­lim­i­nary events lead­ing up to the Louis Vuit­ton Cup chal­lenge se­ries, but now are banned from the ac­tion.

His­tor­i­cally, Cup de­fend­ers were barred from all chal­lenger pre­lim­i­nar­ies, but the rules were changed this time around and many Cup fol­low­ers now won­der if the door is shut­ting too late on Alinghi. Us­ing their old, 2003 Cup-win­ning boat, the Swiss dom­i­nated the pre­lim­i­nary “Acts,” as the in­for­mal races lead­ing up to the Cup were called. Now they have 21⁄ months to mon-

2 itor chal­lengers from afar while de­vel­op­ing their two new Cup boats in private.

As a re­sult, the hur­dle of win­ning the up­com­ing chal­lenger se­ries looks daunt­ing, but it seems not half as dif­fi­cult as win­ning the Cup it­self against Alinghi in June.

“Ev­ery­one be­lieves the de­fender will be very strong,” Luna Rossa skip­per Francesco de An­ge­lis said on Satur­day, “but if the chal­lengers do a good job, they can take the Cup. It’s up to their abil­ity to grow through com­pe­ti­tion.

“It’s dif­fi­cult, but it can be done. Oth­er­wise, none of us would be here.”

BY JUSTIN SUL­LI­VAN — GETTY IMAGES

Larry El­li­son, the bil­lion­aire owner of BMW Or­a­cle, also will dou­ble as a crew mem­ber on the U.S. yacht.

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