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Alinghi sails into lead

VALENCIA, Spain -- Alinghi began its America's Cup title defense yesterday by defeating challenger Emirates Team New Zealand by 35 seconds, the start of a sailing showdown for the oldest trophy in international sports.

Alinghi, a Swiss boat that had not raced in competition since April, will try to extend its lead today when the best-of-nine final for the Auld Mug resumes. This was the sixth straight victory for Alinghi, dating to its 5-0 sweep of the Kiwis in 2003.

"It was a great race," Alinghi skipper Brad Butterworth said. "The boats seem to have much the same speed."

Alinghi rounded the first marker with a 13-second lead after trailing out of the start. It stretched its lead over NZL92 to about 160 yards on the first downwind lap.

Though Emirates Team New Zealand narrowed Alinghi's lead to less than a boat length on the second upwind lap after initiating a tacking duel, the Swiss were faster over the final downwind beat.

Tactician Terry Hutchinson's decision to take the race to the middle of the course paid off as the Kiwi yacht rounded the final marker trailing by only 14 seconds. But Ed Baird, an American at the helm of the new Swiss yacht SUI-100, handled his opponent down the final lap.

Butterworth said the team was pleased, considering that "with the big waves, it was difficult to get the boat settled." He stretched his unbeaten streak in America's Cup races to 16, going back to Black Magic's sweep in 1995 of American yacht Young America, skippered by Dennis Conner.

New Zealand won the right to challenge Alinghi by sweeping Italy's Luna Rossa, 5-0, in the challenger finals, setting up for a rematch after the team from landlocked Switzerland claimed the cup from New Zealand in 2003.

Alinghi has not competed since early April because the defender automatically qualifies for the cup final. New Zealand, meanwhile, fought off 10 teams to win the challenger finals.

New Zealand also was sailing a new boat under skipper and helmsman Dean Barker. Although Alinghi flies the Swiss flag, Butterworth is a New Zealander. He is facing another Kiwi in Barker.