Feuding billionaires take toll on America’s Cup

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VALENCIA, Spain – Although the America’s Cup has always been about ego, the billionaires involved in the current edition may have let theirs get out of hand.

But at least come Monday, bickering moguls Ernesto Bertarelli and Larry Ellison will abandon the courtroom and take to the water as the 33rd edition of the sailing classic gets under way.

Neither Bertarelli, president of two-time defending champion Alinghi, nor his BMW Oracle counterpart Ellison have been prepared to give an inch since July 2007, when the two teams took to the courtroom and laid the current foundation of animosity and bitterness that has marred this edition of the cup.

For Ellison, a victory this week “absolutely is worth it.”

“I regret that we were forced to take any court action at all, but we were really forced into it,” Ellison told the Associated Press on Friday. “(But) I think the sailing team, the BMW Oracle racing sailing team, is a lot better than Ernesto Bertarelli’s sailing team.”

Acrimony best describes the relationship between the two team leaders since BMW Oracle went to court to remove the Spanish challenger initially chosen by Alinghi and to contest the rules, which Ellison contends were completely one-sided. Ellison sees a much fairer fight now.

Bertarelli, who believes it is “fundamentally wrong to take the America’s Cup to court,” said he would be happy to race head-to-head with Ellison.

“Larry can drive his boat on Monday and I’ll be happy to tell (helmsman) Loick Peyron to stay on the side if (Ellison) wants to prove a point,” Bertarelli said on Friday, although Ellison told the AP he won’t be on the boat until the second match.

Bertarelli also suggested that Ellison had taken a legal route because it was his surest route to the final.

“I think Larry is a very ambitious man and he might have thought with a conventional approach he might not have gotten a chance. We should all congratulate him for the first time making it to the final with the disqualification of all the other challengers,” Bertarelli said.

The two sides have been trading shots at each other in the courts since, and the biggest loser looks to be the America’s Cup.

The America’s Cup has always largely been the preserve of the super rich and Bertarelli isn’t surprised by much anymore.

“If you’re one of the richest men on the planet and you haven’t won it yet … I think that’s part of the reason (for forcing this type of match),” Bertarelli said.

Ellison, 65, is a self-made software businessman who is No. 4 on Forbes’; annual rich list with an estimated net worth of $31 billion.

Bertarelli, a 44-year-old Swiss entrepreneur who inherited his biotechnology wealth is No. 52 on the Forbes list with $11.2 billion. He has won the past two editions of the Cup.

The two were friends until Ellison signed skipper Russell Coutts away from the Swiss syndicate shortly after it won the 32nd edition.

“We got along very well. When I hired Russell Coutts (Bertarelli) was afraid he was going to lose,” Ellison said from the team’s hanger in Valencia’s port. “He really dislikes Russell and he’s afraid of Russell. And he thought with a fair set of rules he couldn’t come up with a team that could beat Russell Coutts.”

Both teams have spent a reported $205 million on this campaign, with the majority likely going on legal fees. That account is not closed as the two sides have a Feb. 25 date in the New York Supreme Court to rule on whether Alinghi’s sails are legal or not.

The American team asserts that Alinghi’s sails were built in the United States and therefore violate the “built in-country” requirement that all boats be constructed in the country of origin of the race team. Alinghi contends the built in country rule applies to the hull and has historically never been applied to sails, which it says were made in Switzerland.

“The last attack on the sails is just ridiculous,” Bertarelli said. “I didn’t think they would get that low.”

Former America’s Cup skipper Paul Cayard believed the two men could have done a better job organizing the event once they knew it was going to be raced.

“It’s a bit of a freak show, a circus,” Cayard told the AP from Port America’s Cup on Friday.

Still, these multihull boats are the fastest, most powerful and extreme boats in the 159-year history of the America’s Cup, capable of sailing up to three times the speed of the wind and Ellison believes that is worth watching.

Although most imagine the courtroom saga will go on regardless, Bertarelli believes that winning the 33rd edition on the water will go some way to settling things.

“As far as I’m concerned whatever happens on the water is the final decision,” Bertarelli said.