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AMERICA'S CUP: Comeback complete!

Dogged by penalty points, outclassed by a Kiwi team honed to clockwork precision, Oracle Team USA was down 8-1 at one point only to come back and win eight straight races to capture the 34th America’s Cup Wednesday in one of the great comebacks in sports history.

Riding high on its foils, smoking down the course with Jimmy Spithill at the helm and Ben Ainslie calling tactics, Oracle won the 19th race of this Cup against Emirates Team New Zealand by 44 seconds to keep the America’s Cup at the Golden Gate Yacht Club in San Francisco, the defender’s home club.

“It’s always the faster boat that’s going to win,” one Cup commentator said. “Over the last eight races that’s been Oracle Team USA.”

Oracle was racing 41 knots downwind and 30 knots upwind in 20 knots of breeze, extending its lead from the first gate to more than 700 meters at one point.

“It was a fantastic race,” Spithill said afterward. ”We wouldn’t have had it any other way, come from behind. These guys showed a lot of heart. It’s really about the team, just a fantastic team effort.”

Beset with trouble from the start, the America’s Cup that was supposed to capture the world’s imagination, as 72-foot catamarans careered around San Francisco Bay at 50 mph, looked as if it might be the yawner to beat all yawners.

Just three challengers and Oracle Team USA turned out for the racing. Larry Ellison, Oracle Team USA’s billionaire owner, had hoped for a sizable fleet of challengers to add to the spectacle, but a weak global economy and the enormous expense of fielding a super-high-tech AC72 dashed those hopes.

File photo.

Even before the regatta, the safety of the AC72s came under scrutiny. One of Oracle’s catamarans broke apart last October during training, and in May, British sailor Andrew Simpson died when the Swedish team, Artemis Racing capsized, also during a training run. The events triggered a fresh evaluation of the AC72s, which ride up on foils as they gather speed, and the adoption of wind limits and other safety measures.

Artemis Racing was late joining the Louis Vuitton Cup — the challenger elimination series — in June as it reassessed its program and put a new boat together, giving Emirates Team New Zealand the opportunity to handily win the series. It won seven races; the Italian team, Luna Rossa Challenge, won one; and Artemis Racing did not win any.

It appeared at first that the Cup finale might become a Kiwi cakewalk, too. Oracle started the regatta two points behind, a penalty that an international jury assessed the team for illegally altering one of its 45-foot catamarans in pre-Cup events.

Emirates Team New Zealand was ahead by 8-1 in points (8-3 in wins) and appeared on the cusp of taking Ye Auld Mug down under — 9 points are needed to win — when Oracle ran off seven wins in one of sports’ most incredible comebacks to even the series in points at 8-8 and bring the 34th America’s Cup down to the final race.

Oracle ramped up its game in the eleventh hour, squeezing more speed out of its boat, sharpening its crew work and replacing American John Kostecki with four-time Olympic gold medalist Ben Ainslie at the position of tactician.

The previous time the Cup was decided in the last race was 1983 during the 12 Meter era, when Ben Lexcen’s Australia II met Dennis Conner’s Liberty off Newport, R.I. The Australians were down 3-1 and came from behind to win 4-3, ending a 132-year American winning streak.