AUCKLAND, New Zealand — Prada or Team Dennis Conner? Which would Paul Cayard rather race in the finals of the challenger trials for the America's Cup?
He can almost take his pick, and the choice between the Italian high-fashion powerhouse and Conner's shoestring enterprise might not be what most would think.
Cayard's AmericaOne team from San Francisco is 8-1 with one race remaining and clinched a spot in the challenger finals by beating struggling Nippon (4-5) today. The other spot is between Italy's once impregnable Prada (6-3) and San Diegan Conner's Stars & Stripes (6-2).
Dawn Riley's America True (1-7) was third in the three trial rounds, even ahead of AmericaOne, but hit the wall in these six-boat semifinals. France's Le Defi (1-8) was merely a filler for the New York Yacht Club's unstrung Young America.
Conner complicated the process by taking two days to repair damage inflicted by the French in a rear-end collision, then by using a rudder not allowed by the rules--to beat the Japanese in the first race of the semifinals.
The first incident forced postponement of Stars & Stripes' first race against America True until the end of the semifinals. The second cost the team one point--i.e., one win--thus its lower score.
If Cayard preferred to go into the finals against Stars & Stripes, which is weak in light winds, he could pass up his final race against the San Diegans on Thursday, or simply let them win.
Tank a race? Sure. The international jury has virtually given its blessing in advance.
Earlier, America True had asked the jury what it thought about the prospect of a boat manipulating the overall standings by doing just that.
Astonishingly, at least to some, the jury responded, "There is absolutely nothing wrong with a team 'throwing' or not participating in a race"--with the caveat not to do so in collusion with other competitors.
That would boost Conner's team to 7-2, then to a final 8-2 and seven points by beating America True again in the makeup race Friday.
Prada would finish 7-3 and with seven points by beating Nippon--which would set up a sailoff against Stars & Stripes on Saturday.
But after Tuesday's events, there are reasons to believe that Cayard would prefer Prada. In a rousing finish featuring a flurry of yelling, gesturing, protest flags and several near collisions, AmericaOne beat Prada by eight seconds.
The Italians were shaken.
That night at the mass news conference, skipper Francesco de Angelis was tightly biting his words. At his side tactician Torben Grael, a tough Star class and Olympic champion from Brazil, was so emotionally distraught he choked out his words of complaint about the on-water umpiring and appeared he was about to break down.
The scene was reminiscent of 1992, when Cayard, ironically then the skipper for another Italian team, Il Moro di Venezia, attacked the rival New Zealand challengers so relentlessly over the use of their unique bowsprit that the Kiwis came unglued and became easy marks on the water.
Prada may be acquiring an AmericaOne complex. In its first match of the semifinals against Cayard and Co., its mast broke in the middle and fell.
Although the team had plenty of other masts and won its next four races, de Angelis acknowledged this week, "The loss of the mast was quite a big shock."
So who would be the easier mark now, the once-unbeatable Prada or Conner's crew of battle-hardened America's Cup veterans, sailing a lesser boat but possessing a higher threshold for intimidation?
Cayard isn't saying. Maybe he's thinking it over.