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War of the Roses II

Editor-at-large Herb McCormick forecasts a bleak future for the America's Cup. "First Beat" from our August 28, 2007, /SW eNewsletter/

August 28, 2007
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Gilles Martin-raget/ Www.americascup.com

Someone should’ve sent the late, great Hunter S. Thompson to cover the 1988 America’s Cup, perhaps the most excruciating contest in the history of sports. Yes, sports: All of them. The ’88 Cup, a court-ordered match between Dennis Conner’s 60-foot catamaran and Kiwi Michael Fay’s 120-foot monohull, was so hideous it transcended sailing, though it did cop a worthy nickname: The Coma off Point Loma. It was a waterborne Theatre of the Absurd, fearsome and loathful, and Thompson was probably the only writer of our time who could’ve truly captured what a miserable, epic disaster it actually was.

Like many of my fellow scribes on hand to “cover” the racing, I was blind drunk half the time; it was the only way to address the all-encompassing ennui. The first five minutes of the first race (mercifully, there were only two) were semi-interesting, if only for their novelty. After that, the “races” were foregone conclusions, total horizon jobs; the lone option on the press boat was a retreat to the bar. I left San Diego promising myself to never again get wrapped up in the America’s Cup, and it took me a very long time for that sentiment to fade away. Then, like every other sailor, I was enthralled by the thrilling competition of the recently concluded 32nd Cup but afterwards, almost instantly, lo and behold, we once again had lawyers marching into Manhattan courtrooms and there was really only one logical reaction.

Good bloody grief: Here we go again.

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There’s a ton of commentary on the Internet about what’s transpired in the seven short weeks since Ernesto Bertarelli bathed himself and his Alinghi crew in rose petals after dispatching Team New Zealand to successfully defend the Cup off Valencia. But here’s the nut of it: Bertarelli and Alinghi have installed a Spanish Challenger of Record that, even to the most unbiased observer, appears to have serious issues regarding its legitimacy. Larry Ellison and his BMW Oracle team believe it’s a front job so Alinghi can stack the odds, and the rules, egregiously in their favor.

Papers have been filed by Ellison in the New York Supreme Court, the steward of the Deed of Gift on which the Cup has always been based, seeking a ruling and relief. Alinghi must respond within the next week and courtroom proceedings will follow shortly thereafter.

Yes, four other challengers have come forth, which seemingly takes some of the starch out of Ellison’s collar. And men in suits, on both sides of this teetering equation, have fired shots across one another’s bows, yada yada yada. But make no mistake, what this is now coming down to is a royal pissing match between two billionaires, and there’s no way to make that sound pretty. One would hope that cooler heads would prevail, but that would entail having cooler heads involved. It looks like this is headed for the sage minds of a high court, which means all bets are off and the future of the America’s Cup is once again in free fall. Holy smokes.

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The whole sordid deal reminds me of the vicious movie “War of the Roses,” about the deterioration of a modern marriage, with Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas as Mr. and Mrs. Rose, a couple with, one might say, disagreements. The film is a black comedy lethally devoid of laughs for the simple reason that it’s impossible to relate to or cheer for either of the main protagonists, who are both detestable.

Which brings us back to the America’s Cup. I mean, who does one root for in this mess?

On one hand, you have to hand it to Bertarelli and Alinghi. In back-to-back Cup finals, they have taken names and kicked butt. During that stretch, Brad Butterworth has established himself as one of the great Cup sailors of all time.

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But Bertarelli also seems like a fellow to whom “no” is a very foreign word. Alinghi has already hijacked the traditional Challengers series, giving the Defender unprecedented access to its competition, and it’s still not enough for him. (And, why, by the way, is there no uproar over Louis Vuitton’s decision to bail from the event? If ever there was a canary in a coalmine…)

On the other hand, you have the twice-vanquished Ellison riding over the prairie like the Lone Ranger, and while you can make the case that he’s truly acting on behalf of the health of the Cup, it’s also hard to dismiss the fact that there’s something pretty self-serving about the timing, and the largesse, of his altruism.

Where all this is ultimately leading is, of course, absolutely impossible to predict, with one exception. When and if it again comes to a Supreme Court ruling, one rich guy will be right, and the rest of us, the sailors who love the America’s Cup, will all be wronged.

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