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By Alden Bentley and Ronnie Cohen
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Oracle Team USA edged out Emirates Team New Zealand in a blustery fourth race for the America's Cup on Sunday, reminding the Kiwis, who won the first three races of the event, that the American yacht is formidable.
While government-backed New Zealand won the third heat of the 17-race final series on San Francisco Bay, software billionaire Larry Ellison's Oracle team led the first half of that match and controlled the entire fourth race, cruising into the finish about eight seconds in front of the Kiwis.
Though Oracle started the finals behind by two races due to a jury-imposed cheating penalty, the series now looks like a contest between two well-matched, high-tech 72-foot catamarans.
"A lesser team probably would have crumbled in the fourth race," a jubilant Oracle skipper Jimmy Spithill said at a news conference. "It feels good to shift the momentum over towards us."
Oracle had better starts near the fog-enshrouded Golden Gate Bridge than New Zealand in both Sunday races. In the first Spithill forced the challengers into a right-of-way infraction that prompted a penalty.
But the Kiwis got around the Americans in an upwind tacking dual on the third leg off Alcatraz Island. Oracle was unable to regain the lead, trailing by 28 seconds at the finish line.
The New Zealand boat looked fast upwind, turning a 17-second Oracle lead at the mark ending the first downwind leg, into a 29-second advantage over Oracle at the windward turning mark near the Golden Gate.
Oracle's AC72 seemed to excel when the wind increased to over 20 knots (23 miles per hour) in the second race of the day. Spithill, an Australian, used aggressive pre-start tactics to claim the advantageous position as the race kicked off.
The American team blocked every move Team New Zealand made to stay ahead at each of the five marks and reached a top speed of 46 knots (53 mph).
Despite what might have been a costly mistake, splashing his twin hulls back into the water off the hydrofoils too early at the third mark, he recovered and maintained a slightly higher average speed over New Zealand around the course.
Racing continues on Tuesday and Thursday. With two matches on each day, New Zealand could take back the "Auld Mug," as the Cup in called in the sailing world, on Saturday.
Bookmakers contemplated a Kiwi sweep, but given Sunday's close races, New Zealand still has an uphill battle.
"We want to keep the Cup here in the Bay," Spithill said. "These guys want to take it to New Zealand."
To hold onto the Cup, Oracle needs two victories more than New Zealand.
The Kiwis must win nine races to take the 162-year-old trophy. Oracle needs to win 11 because of a punishment for making illegal modifications to 45-foot catamarans it used in warm-up regattas.
Kiwi managing director Grant Dalton crewed on his yacht in Sunday's first race. But after manning one of the pedestal grinders that provide the power to the yacht's moving parts, the 56-year old took a break for the second race. A reporter asked New Zealand skipper Dean Barker if he could blame the lost race on Dalton's absence.
Barker chuckled and said he remained confident in his team's ability despite the loss.
"We sailed by our standards a pretty average race, and we still sailed a close race," he said.
If New Zealand wins the Cup, Dalton has said he would use the defender's right to set rules to force teams competing in the next America's Cup to employ only sailors from their home countries. A nationality rule could heavily favor New Zealand, a sailing-crazed nation that produced many of the yachtsmen in this year's America's Cup competition.
Only two of Oracle's sailors are Americans, and another two come from New Zealand. In contrast, all but two of New Zealand's sailors hail from the tiny island nation.
(Editing by Alden Bentley)