June 03, 2017

As if it needed any more of a boost, two-time defending champion Oracle Team USA will start the 35th America's Cup match ahead 1-0.

Owned by software billionaire Larry Ellison and skippered by Australian Jimmy Spithill, Oracle Team USA sailed a masterful race on Bermuda's Great Sound on the final day of the qualifiers Saturday to beat Emirates Team New Zealand and earn a bonus point in the 35th America's Cup match that starts June 17.

It's just one of the radical departures from tradition in this America's Cup, which, perhaps fittingly, is being sailed on the northern tip of the Bermuda Triangle.

Imagine if the World Cup final started with one team already ahead by a goal. Or the World Series starting with one team already up by one game.

That's similar to what Oracle gained.

''We just won a race in the Cup, boys. Good work,'' tactician Tom Slingsby told his crewmates after Oracle's fast, 50-foot catamaran splashed down off its foils at the end of the race.

There's still plenty to get used to in this America's Cup. This is the first time the defender has sailed with the challengers in the preliminaries. It's the first time a bonus point has been awarded for the match. Oracle will need to win only six races starting June 17. The challenger will still need to win seven in order to pry the oldest trophy in international sports away from powerhouse Oracle.

''I think the point could end up being incredibly important,'' said Spithill, who forced Team New Zealand skipper Peter Burling into a penalty at the start and won by 29 seconds in a rematch between the teams that sailed the epic 2013 America's Cup match. ''Clearly that was our goal coming into the competition. We wanted that point, like the rest of the teams.

''Every win you can get in the America's Cup ac match is extremely powerful and I'm very, very proud of the team to have held their own under some serious pressure today, both on and off the water, to get the job done today,'' Spithill said.

Spithill knows how valuable wins are in the match. In 2013, Oracle started the America's Cup showdown with the Kiwis down two points after being penalized in the biggest cheating scandal in the regatta's 166-year history. Oracle struggled for speed in the early races and replaced tactician John Kostecki with British sailing star Ben Ainslie. The Kiwis reached match point at 8-1 and were way ahead in what would have been the clinching race, but it was abandoned after the time limit expired on a fluky day on San Francisco Bay. Oracle then won eight straight races in one of the greatest comebacks in sports to keep the Auld Mug.

Coupled with two wins in these round robins, Oracle has won 10 straight races against Team New Zealand.

''We obviously weren't good enough out there today,'' said Burling, who has won Olympic gold and silver medals. ''But we'll address that and come back stronger.''

Oracle will now train on its own while the challengers sail their semifinals, which start Sunday, and finals.

Top-seeded Emirates Team New Zealand chose Ainslie's syndicate, Land Rover BAR, as its opponent in the semifinals. That leaves SoftBank Team Japan to face Sweden's Artemis Racing in the other semi.

Had Team New Zealand won Saturday's race, would have earned a bonus point if it made it through to the match.

The normally crack Kiwi crew was penalized twice, including at the start when it forced Oracle, the right-of-way boat, to bear away as the 50-foot catamarans jockeyed for position at the line. The Kiwis had to clear the penalty by slowing to two boat lengths behind Oracle.

Team New Zealand crossed ahead of Oracle on the third leg but Spithill squeezed through the gate mark in the lead.

The Kiwis later committed an unforced penalty when it strayed across the course boundary and had to slow again.

Oracle came back later Saturday and beat Land Rover BAR. In other races, Land Rover BAR beat Team Japan and Artemis Racing beat Groupama Team France, which was eliminated Friday.

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Follow Bernie Wilson on Twitter at http://twitter.com/berniewilson

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