Oracle takes first win against Team New Zealand in America’s Cup

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Jimmy Spithill skippered two-time defending champion Oracle Team USA to its first victory of the America’s Cup regatta, taking a thriller in race six to earn a split Saturday and slow the momentum of Emirates Team New Zealand.

Oracle cut Team New Zealand’s lead in the first-to-seven regatta to 4-1. Team New Zealand has won five races but began with a negative point because Oracle won the qualifiers.

Until the sixth race, the powerhouse American squad, owned by software tycoon Larry Ellison and crewed mostly by Australians, had been humbled by the underfunded but crafty Kiwis and their fast 50ft, foiling catamaran helmed by 26-year-old America’s Cup rookie Peter Burling.

Spithill has been here before. In 2013, Oracle trailed Team New Zealand 8-1 on San Francisco Bay before winning eight straight races to complete one of the greatest comebacks in sporting history.

Not only did Oracle make its boat faster during a five-day break in racing, but Spithill regained his edge in the mind games.

Oracle had seen the Kiwis taking a few days off during the week, he said, while they sailed every day and their shore team worked long hours at night. He mentioned the San Francisco comeback. He also said he felt the Kiwis had been on the favorable end of “a few soft penalties” by the umpires.

“Now we’ve got confidence,” the 37-year-old Spithill said. “Everyone on the team has just been going full noise the whole week. We’ve seen these guys taking days off. That’s good. I love seeing that.”

Oracle’s boat was faster than on its opening weekend wipeout, when the Kiwis won four straight races by margins from 30 to 88 seconds. But Oracle is still making mistakes, which Spithill acknowledged. It was penalized twice and had a costly maneuver in the first race, allowing the Kiwis to speed off to a victory of 2:04, the biggest in the match.

Oracle came back and won race six by 11 seconds, the closest margin so far.

“We know we can do this,” Spithill said. “We’ve been there before. The most important thing I remember from San Francisco was getting a win on the board. That was the key thing. That’s why today was very, very important. You see the team’s pumped up now. They’re ready to get to work.”

Spithill said Oracle was going back out on the water later on Saturday to practice.

“We all saw today that the boat was faster,” he said. “Obviously we’re not sailing it as well as we should be … We have more on the table. It is working. The boat is getting quicker.”

Spithill said Oracle made too many changes to the boat to mention. “We changed everything,” he said.

Burling defended the Kiwis taking a few days off and said it had been a great opportunity for the shore team to work on its boat. The Kiwis have had their share of mayhem this spring, including a capsize in the challenger semifinals.

“We feel like we’ve made some pretty good steps forward,” said Burling, who could become the youngest helmsman to win the Auld Mug. “I don’t think we sailed that well today, to be honest. But we’re really happy with the lead we’ve got.”

Burling, who has won Olympic gold and silver medals with Team New Zealand crewmate Blair Tuke, got in a zinger of his own, saying about Oracle: “It’s great to see a bit of fight out of these boys.”

To which Spithill responded, “It’s just beginning, mate.”

There were lead changes in both races Saturday, as well as mistakes. Team New Zealand gained during a wind shift on leg four of the sixth race and passed Oracle. But Oracle closed the distance and the boats were even as they went through the gate mark five. The Kiwis had a bad maneuver and Spithill sailed into the lead and on to victory.

In race five, Spithill crossed the starting line a split second too soon and had to drop two lengths behind Team New Zealand. He crossed ahead on the third leg. When the boats crossed again, New Zealand was slightly ahead and on favored starboard tack.

Spithill dipped underneath and both crews pushed the protest button. The umpires decided Spithill didn’t give Burling enough room. That was enough to allow Burling to speed well ahead.

Races seven and eight are scheduled for Sunday.