SAN DIEGO — Only Dennis Conner has won the America's Cup three times, and now he's on the brink of another distinction: the first to lose it twice.
Such is the shadow he has cast over the event that New Zealand's satisfaction will be so much greater when it wrests sport's oldest trophy from the man who was their name-calling nemesis in the past.
The Kiwis have been "cheaters" in 1987 and "losers" in '88, according to Conner, but after Thursday's thrashing by 3 minutes 37 seconds, even he must concede that they are now worthy of the sobriquet: winners.
Down, 4-0, the best he can do is hope to salvage a last hurrah Saturday that would avoid suffering the first 5-0 sweep in the 144 years of the Cup.
That is because it's the first time it's been sailed at best-of-nine.
New Zealand's Black Magic, beaten only once in 42 races, is clearly a faster boat, but the difference wasn't all in boat speed Thursday. In shifty winds of 5-10 knots, Conner's crew enjoyed 15 minutes of glory before it let the Kiwis get away to better wind and seize the lead.
Team Stars & Stripes, sailing the borrowed Young America of PACT 95, changed its game plan from the first three races. Instead of maneuvering to claim the left side of the course, which had been suicide, helmsman Paul Cayard went for the right--and this time the Kiwis were happy to let him have it.
When the boats met 10 minutes later, Young America was two lengths ahead, the first time it has had a clear lead over Black Magic. Cayard tacked in front of the black boat and they went their separate ways again.
Five minutes later they met again in the same scenario, only this time the Kiwis saw something the Americans didn't.
Navigator Tom Schnackenberg, celebrating his 50th birthday, and tactician Brad Butterworth noticed that the wind increase that their weatherman, Bob Rice, had forecast for the left side was starting to develop.
"We just thought the left was going to pay off today," Black Magic skipper Russell Coutts said. "The right paid off the starting line, but when they tacked on us again it was a mistake because there was a pretty big puff (of wind) out there on the left side and we were happy to be bounced out into it. Our boat speed increased by a knot."
A few hundred yards away, on the opposite tack, Cayard looked over his left shoulder, grimaced and shook his head.
Eight minutes after the previous crossing, Black Magic came back 10 boat lengths in front--the definition of an insurmountable lead.
The mustachioed Schnackenberg gave it a "what, me worry?" shrug.
"We thought it was just a matter of time," he said. "The wind was going big shifts in both directions, so there were plenty of opportunities. We felt comfortable that we could race them."
That's as close as the Kiwis have come to claiming victory prematurely, even after previous victories by 2:45, 4:14 and 1:51. Strategist Murray Jones allowed himself to say, "It's unbelievable how easy it's been."
Tactician Tom Whidden disagreed with Coutts that Team Stars & Stripes had made a mistake in failing to stay with Black Magic after the second crossing.
"We were in a very good shift of our own, and the right had been good to us," he said. "Looking at the times, there may have been more in it than the shifts. I'm not sure we were going that well on the first (upwind leg)."
Early on the leg, Cayard was heard to say over ESPN's on-board microphone, "We're really slow and underpowered. Get the weight to leeward, guys."
Among the crew these days, seldom is heard an encouraging word, but Whidden said a few minutes later, "We might be ahead now."
Indeed they were, but as they approached Black Magic on opposite tacks, Conner said, "I think I'd tack on him . . . keep the right."
It seemed like a good idea at the time, and in it there was a lesson: Which is the best way to go?
Clearly, whichever way the Kiwis go.
Cayard expressed the frustration of sailing against the black boat.
"You're witnessing the best performance by a challenger in recent history," he said. "It's certainly the largest differential in boat speeds. I've never been in a race where I had so little control over the outcome. I'm just out there delivering the boat around the course."
The Cup is due for delivery Saturday.