WELLINGTON (Reuters) - New Zealand yachting fans, who just a week ago were about to pop the champagne corks to celebrate the winning of the America’s Cup, are starting to fear the worst after the defender Oracle Team USA notched a fifth successive win to dent challenger Emirates Team New Zealand’s chances of clinching the trophy.
Thousands have gathered to watch races in yacht clubs, public and school halls, and around television sets in bars, cafes, and work places to watch the races, which take place at the start of each day.
Spectators, fingers crossed in hope, feet clad in red socks - a lucky totem from the country’s first successful challenge in 1995 -- have had their emotions roiled by every wind change, tacking duel, and weather delay.
A week ago, sport’s oldest trophy, known as the Auld Mug, looked destined to return to New Zealand as the challenger, skippered by Dean Barker, sprinted to an 8-1 lead, but Oracle’s return has New Zealand fans starting to think the unthinkable.
“I‘m struggling to keep positive, my faith in the team and Dean (Barker) is being sorely tested, we’re only one (win) away, but my nerves are a bit like our chances, in tatters,” said Wellington office worker Will Christie, who has been late into work so he can watch the maritime drama.
In a nation of 4.5 million, where it’s estimated there’s one boat for every four people, there is no shortage of either experience or advice.
“Team New Zealand can still do it, but they have to look at being much more aggressive at the start ... sitting there on match point I think they have to lash out with a bit of aggression,” said Geoff Herd, the commodore of Wellington’s Royal Port Nicholson yacht Club.
The test of faith is being reflected in betting on the races, as local punters see the chances of an upset.
The state-controlled betting agency, TAB, has slashed the odds of Oracle holding on to the Cup from rank outsider to still unfancied but in with a serious chance.
“The money just keeps on coming, Oracle have five wins in a row and that can’t be ignored, at one stage we closed the book but when Oracle came back we couldn’t ignore it,” the TAB’s yachting bookmaker Kieran McAnulty told Reuters.
The irony is that Sailing New Zealand, the national body which controls the sport, gets a slice of the betting proceeds and will get a bigger amount because of Oracle’s resurgence.
Editing by Greg Stutchbury