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Sailing-Oracle losing grasp on America's Cup as Kiwis win sixth

Four-time Olympic gold medalist Ben Ainslie of Great Britain stands for a photograph after sailing in the San Francisco Bay for the first ti
Four-time Olympic gold medalist Ben Ainslie of Great Britain stands for a photograph after sailing in the San Francisco Bay for the first ti

By Ronnie Cohen

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Oracle Team USA's bid to turn the tide in its floundering America's Cup campaign by bringing sailing superstar Ben Ainslie aboard failed on Thursday, when Emirates Team New Zealand crushed the defenders in two do-or-die races.

The Kiwis now have scored six of the nine victories they need to bring home the trophy the yachting world refers to as the Auld Mug. Oracle, slapped with a jury-imposed two-race penalty, has won only one race and still needs to win another 10 to keep the 162-year-old trophy.

Government-backed New Zealand finished 66 seconds ahead of software billionaire Larry Ellison's Oracle in its high-speed, 72-foot catamaran in the second race of the day and 47 seconds ahead in the first heat.

"We cannot give up," said Oracle skipper Jimmy Spithill at a post-race news conference. "We'll keep fighting all the way to the end. I'm still convinced we can win races."

In Thursday's first race, the sixth of the series, Oracle won the start but lost the lead upwind on the third leg. In the second match, New Zealand won the start and kept the lead throughout.

Oracle has looked slow against New Zealand on the upwind legs, where it has forfeited leading positions in five races. The Kiwis in Thursday's first race forced Oracle into having to perform a dozen of the taxing maneuvers as the huge catamarans zigzagged into a light 12-knot breeze to the windward mark.

Spithill said the upwind speed differential caught his team off guard. "I think it is a shock that they've got the edge upwind," he said.

But he added: "There's a lot of racing to go. It's a long way from over in my mind."

New Zealand used an aggressive match racing "dial-down" tactic in race six to pass Oracle. The challenger had the right of way as it was about to cross tacks with its foe, and by aiming straight at Oracle forced it to duck and lose distance.

Ainslie, the most successful Olympic sailor of all time, was knighted for his achievements on the water. He took over as tactician aboard the AC72 from American John Kostecki.

The 36-year old Briton was the skipper of Oracle's second yacht during training matches and remains a fearful competitor for New Zealand.

"It feels nice to have won six races, but it's only two-thirds of the way toward winning the America's Cup," New Zealand skipper Dean Barker told reporters. "We know it's far from over."

Earlier this week, a tactical blunder by Kostecki cost Oracle a lead, allowed the Kiwis to cruise into a commanding fourth victory, and prompted the American team to call for an unusual time-out.

Oracle started the regatta two points behind because of an unprecedented jury-imposed punishment for illegally modifying the team's smaller, prototype boats sailed in warm-up races.

Though Oracle flies the American flag, substituting Ainslie for Kostecki leaves only one U.S. sailor on the team, trimmer Rome Kirby. All but two of the Kiwi sailors hail from New Zealand.

The international jury that punished Oracle in the biggest cheating scandal in Cup history also expelled Kostecki's brother-in-law, first-choice Oracle wing trimmer Dirk de Ridder for making illegal boat alterations.

Ellison won the world's oldest sporting trophy in Valencia in 2010 and with it the right to choose his home San Francisco Bay waters as the venue and the fragile and hard-to-handle twin-hulled yachts with 13-story rigid wing sails as the vessels.

Sailors have criticized the Oracle chief executive's decisions, particularly after British Olympic gold medalist Andrew "Bart" Simpson was killed when the AC72 of Sweden's Artemis Racing capsized during a May practice exercise.

(Editing by Alden Bentley)

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