- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 2, 2009

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) - American software billionaire Larry Ellison scored a significant victory Thursday in his quest to win the America’s Cup when San Francisco’s Golden Gate Yacht Club was declared the Challenger of Record.

The unanimous ruling by New York’s top court gives Golden Gate, which backs Ellison’s BMW Oracle Racing, the right to negotiate race terms with Societe Nautique de Geneve, the Swiss club that backs two-time defending champion Alinghi.

The next America’s Cup had been scheduled for this summer but was delayed because of this protracted case that had entangled yachting’s showpiece event. It is still unclear when competition will actually begin.

Golden Gate is expected to advocate for a traditional multichallenger regatta with single-hull boats. If the two sides can’t agree, they’ll meet in a rare one-on-one showdown in faster 90-foot multihull boats. That would pit billionaires and one-time friends Ellison and Ernesto Bertarelli of Alinghi against each other aboard the boats they own.

Ellison is the founder and CEO of business software giant Oracle Corp.

After 20 months of fighting between the Swiss and American syndicates, the decision by the Court of Appeals appeared to have an immediate impact. Bertarelli, a biotech tycoon, contacted Ellison on Thursday evening to open discussions, Alinghi spokeswoman Daphne Morgan Barnicoat said in an e-mail to The Associated Press. Barnicoat had no other details.

“It falls now to SNG and GGYC to work together to maintain this noble sailing tradition as ‘a perpetual Challenge Cup for friendly competition between foreign countries,’” Judge Carmen Beauchamp Ciparick wrote. Judges Victoria Graffeo, Susan Read, Robert Smith, Eugene Pigott Jr. and Theodore Jones Jr. agreed.

The judges reversed a midlevel court that found Club Nautico, a Spanish association backed by the Swiss champion, qualified as challenger.

“It has consistently been our view that the America’s Cup should be fought on the water,” Societe Nautique said in a statement. The club added that it will discuss terms with Golden Gate.

“There will be another America’s Cup,” Societe Nautique lawyer Barry Ostrager said. “The complexion of it and the participants in it and the circumstances of it remain to be seen.”

Jane Eagleson, spokeswoman for BMW Oracle Racing, said her group was pleased and would comment in a few days. Club Nautico lawyer David Rivkin declined comment.

BMW Oracle Racing officials and others in the sailing community feared that a Swiss victory in court could have led to Alinghi dominating the America’s Cup for years. They said that the Spanish club originally chosen by Alinghi as Challenger of Record was a sham and the Swiss were tilting the rules for the next Cup. Had Golden Gate lost, Ellison and his crew could have been shut out of the next America’s Cup.

The top court agreed with Golden Gate that Club Nautico Espanol De Vela was ineligible because it never held annual regattas required of the challenger under the amended 1887 Deed of Gift that governs the America’s Cup. A trial judge had sided with Golden Gate.

Ciparick wrote that the language governing the Challenger of Record was “unambiguous,” regardless of whether so-called consent challengers who also race don’t have to meet the same terms.

After defeating a New Zealand crew to defend the cup in July 2007, at Valencia, Spain, Societe Nautique immediately accepted a challenge from a new association, Spain’s Club Nautico Espanol De Vela. They planned to hold the next regatta in Valencia, but it has been postponed for more than a year by the lawsuit by Golden Gate, which had issued its own challenge two days later.

Societe Nautique argued before the Court of Appeals last month that Golden Gate really wanted a match race with its $20 million trimaran against the Swiss champion’s bigger boat, instead of competing against 18 other clubs with a series of elimination races.

The Court of Appeals noted that the Deed of Gift contains a “default match provision” for the one-on-one race should the cup holder and challenger fail to agree on terms.

BMW Oracle Racing has been testing it’s 90-foot trimaran in San Diego. Alinghi officials have said they’ve begun building a multihull but will finish it only if necessary.

Golden Gate representatives rejected the accusation, saying they envision an America’s Cup race with many competitors in single-hull boats.

___

AP Sports Writer Bernie Wilson in San Diego and Associated Press Writer Graham Dunbar in Geneva contributed to this report.

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