By Noel Randewich
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Oracle Team USA moved a step closer to keeping the America's Cup on Monday, winning the day's only race and yet again preventing challenger Emirates Team New Zealand from clinching the trophy.
It was the fifth straight victory for the team owned by billionaire Larry Ellison, which a week ago seemed like it was about to lose the world's oldest sporting trophy but now looks strong enough to win the series - as long as it can keep the Kiwis from winning one more race.
New Zealand appeared to have the advantage at the starting gun, crossing the line slightly ahead. But Oracle was quicker to rise up on its foils and accelerate, passing the Kiwis to windward and preventing them from getting a right-of-way blocking position at mark one.
New Zealand never recovered, despite hoisting a second, larger jib hoping for more downwind speed, and finished 33 seconds behind the agile U.S. boat.
"We were relatively happy with where we were on the line but they managed to get a bit of momentum at the start. A little bit frustrating," said New Zealand skipper Dean Barker. "The Oracle guys had a polished race that time and there were no opportunities to get back into it."
Weak wind delayed the start of the race on Monday and not enough time was left for a second scheduled race. Two more races are scheduled for Tuesday.
After struggling to keep up with New Zealand in the early matches of the final series, Oracle made changes to its AC72 catamaran and improved its execution of maneuvers. It's newly found competitiveness has set the stage for a historic comeback.
New Zealand's point advantage over Oracle has fallen to 8-6 in the best-of-17 series. Oracle now needs to win three straight races to keep the Cup, while New Zealand needs just one to take it home.
On the water, Oracle has won eight races, the same as New Zealand, but its first two wins were negated by a cheating penalty before the finals began.
Too much wind, too little wind, and wind from the wrong direction have forced organizers to postpone several races since the series began on Sept 7. On Saturday, the Kiwis were well on their way to winning one last match, and the Cup. But with both teams struggling to find enough wind, that race was called off after a time limit was exceeded.
(Editing by Alden Bentley)