SAN FRANCISCO - Emirates Team New Zealand beat billionaire Larry Ellison's Oracle Team USA in the first race in the final series of the 34th America's Cup sailing regatta on Saturday on San Francisco Bay.
In the first of two races on Saturday, which kicked off a best-of-17 final series to win the Cup, the two teams' catamarans nearly collided on several occasions as they crisscrossed the bay. New Zealand was slightly ahead at the start and was passed by Oracle for a short time before regaining its lead and winning the race.
It was the first neck-and-neck race in the regatta after two months of relatively tame qualifying matches easily dominated by the Kiwis.
The final series of matches is culmination of a regatta plagued by controversies including cheating by Oracle, dangerous catamarans, a fatal accident and accusations of mismanagement.
The latest setback came on Tuesday, when an international jury docked Oracle two points and kicked three team members out of the event for adding illegal weight to boats used in a previous preparatory Cup competition.
The penalties, unprecedented in the history of the 162-year-old event, are a big boost for New Zealand, which demolished other would-be challengers in qualifying races in July and August.
Bookmakers see the Kiwis as favorites to take the America's Cup from Oracle although, in a twist of fate, they are now up against one of their country's most accomplished sailors.
Due to the penalty, Oracle needs to win 11 races to retain the Cup, while New Zealand only needs to win a total of nine. Oracle is also sailing without a key crew member, Dirk de Ridder, a 40-year-old Dutchman who was banished from the event for his role in the weight scandal.
The debacle first came to light in July, when 45-foot Oracle catamarans that had been used for a regatta known as the America's Cup World Series of Racing - and were raced again last week in a youth competition - were found to have illegal bags of lead and resin wedged into their frames. Adding weight can help improve the yachts' stability.
In most countries, sailboat racing is a niche sport, and this year's America's Cup so far has done little to change that. Ellison, who won the cup in 2010, and with it the right to set the rules for this year's races, hoped to make the competition more accessible to everyday sports fans with super-fast, high-tech 72-foot boats called AC72s sailing close to shore on the picturesque Bay.