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In classic duel, Kiwis get a windfall at finish

VALENCIA, Spain -- On a day of shifting winds and swelling waves, the challenger from New Zealand took the lead in the America's Cup yesterday in a classic race in which it beat defending champion Alinghi and nearly lost a crew member overboard.

Emirates Team New Zealand is ahead, 2-1, after prevailing in a race that featured eight lead changes, bow-to-bow sailing, and a victory margin of 25 seconds. The fourth race in the best-of-nine series for the Auld Mug, the oldest trophy in international sports, is today.

Wind blew in all directions across the course, generating large swells and testing both teams' decision-making. By the finish, Alinghi found itself with a deficit for the first time in America's Cup racing.

The race was delayed for nearly two hours because of the tricky winds, and Alinghi owner Ernesto Bertarelli said the sailing should have been postponed.

"I don't think the wind should decide the regatta," he said. "The competitors should decide the race on their ability. I think we raced really well, we were just a bit unlucky."

New Zealand conceded the early lead to guard its advantage on the right side in the blustery conditions. The move paid off as the Kiwis took a 300-meter lead up the first upwind lap. But a poor spinnaker set around the second marker almost threw bowman Richard Meacham over the side, allowing the Swiss back into the race up the third leg.

Alinghi's faster boat gained on the Kiwis to round the final marker with a boat-length lead. But the Kiwis split to the left behind a stronger breeze, and the lead changed three times over the final run before the NZL-92 boat earned the victory.

"It was a little bit like Las Vegas and that is why the race shouldn't have happened," Bertarelli said. "Now the result's here and we take it. Now we're looking forward to tomorrow."

The Kiwis raced around the first marker with a lead of 83 seconds.

Meacham clung to the ropes to keep from falling from the bow as the NZL-92 rounded the second marker. That distracted the crew and caused a sloppy jib takedown as a sudden gust came in, and the Kiwis' sail was soon tangled up.

As New Zealand struggled to bring in the sheet, Alinghi eventually moved into the lead.

Hoping to use its superior boat speed to hold the lead, Alinghi went right and tried to avoid unnecessary turns.

"The breeze was shifting a bit for us but nothing like it was for New Zealand," Alinghi runner Rodney Ardern said. "We were looking for a place to go back but it just didn't come for us."