By Noel Randewich
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Emirates Team New Zealand is on the verge of winning the America's Cup and needs to beat struggling defender Oracle Team USA in just one of two races scheduled for Thursday.
The Kiwis turned in the latest of several textbook performances in a race on Wednesday that left Oracle with nowhere to turn. Oracle, once the favorite to retain the title that it won three years ago, needs eight straight victories to keep the huge silver cup, which at 162 years is the sporting world's oldest trophy.
New Zealand was forced to wait for a final crack at the Cup after a second race scheduled for Wednesday was canceled due to a strong sea breeze and outgoing tide that made conditions on San Francisco Bay unsafe for the high-performance but fragile 72-foot catamarans.
"We are obviously in a very difficult position," Oracle tactician Ben Ainslie said. "We'll keep working on what improvements we can make, and we will go out, get the guys fired up and race as hard as we can."
New Zealand dominated matches between the two teams in early races in the America's Cup finals on San Francisco Bay, then lost momentum over the weekend when a vastly improved Oracle won its second and third matches, raising hopes of a last-minute comeback.
Oracle Team USA, which is backed by software billionaire Larry Ellison, became far more competitive after making changes to its carbon fiber AC72 and has greatly improved its upwind tacking, but it may be to be too little and too late.
"Both teams have reacted very well to what they've observed of the other team," New Zealand skipper Dean Barker said after Wednesday's matchup. "It's quite unbelievable that the two boats are so close in performance across a wide range of conditions."
Oracle's new-found speed appears most pronounced in heavier winds, and the breezes were comparatively light in Wednesday's race, averaging 15 knots (17 mph).
Thursday's forecast was for winds between 15 knots and 18 knots, according to organizers, below limits they set after Swedish team Artemis Racing suffered a fatal training accident in May.
A proposal by Oracle this week to increase the wind limits for racing was rejected by New Zealand.
Sunday's matches were among the most thrilling in yacht-racing history. The two supercharged AC72s dueled neck and neck in the second race, changing leads four times, an America's Cup record, before New Zealand eked out a victory. On Saturday, New Zealand narrowly avoided catastrophe with a near-capsize that cost it the race.
Ellison's team won the America's Cup in Valencia, Spain in 2010 and with it the right to set the rules for this year's competition, including the AC72 yachts and the regatta's venue on windy San Francisco Bay.
The Kiwis first won the America's Cup in 1995 and successfully defended it in 2000 before losing the trophy three years later to Swiss biotechnology billionaire Ernesto Bertarelli's Alinghi in a disastrous campaign that left the team in shambles.
(Editing by Alden Bentley)