April 12, 2007 The eyes of the nautical world are all on Spain at present where the biggest show on water has convened to determine the contender to take on Alinghi for "ye auld mug". The completion of the Lois Vuitton Ranking fleet races gives us time to pause and reflect before the one-on-one Louis Vuitton Cup races begin next Monday to decide on a final challenger to the defending Alinghi team in the 2007 America's Cup regatta.

At 156 years and counting, the America's Cup is the oldest active international sporting trophy in the world. Its proud tradition of challenge racing tells a story both of sailing excellence and uncompromising technical innovation in maritime materials and design. A parallel history of expensive courtroom drama off the water has highlighted the importance of the Cup to the competing teams; this is the Formula One of the water, stakes are high and teams play to win.

American dominance of the challenge's early years began on day one, when the "America" destroyed 15 British competitors to win by 20 minutes in the inaugural 1851 race around the Isle of Wight. In the longest winning streak in sport's history, American teams successfully defended the Cup for a staggering 132 years, a glaring affront to Britain's naval reputation, but the monotonous regularity of American superiority saw global interest dwindle.

This famously changed when flamboyant millionaire Alan Bond's "Australia II," with its controversial but repeatedly court-approved winged keel, came back from a 3-1 disadvantage to snatch the Cup from US defender "Liberty" in the 1983 best-of-seven challenge. America's loss, although they would regain the Cup in 1987, sparked a massive uprise in international media coverage. Goliath had fallen; the most prestigious prize in international watersport was up for grabs.

Dirty fighting, poor sportsmanship and a series of court rulings that led to a farcical annihalation of New Zealand by America marred the challenge's image again in 1988. Confusion about the letter versus the spirit of the Cup challenge rules was quashed with the introduction of a single class - the International America's Cup Class (IACC) of yachts, providing a strict formula for yacht construction.

New Zealand took the trophy in 1995, and current champion Alinghi from Switzerland claimed the Cup in 2003. For the first time in history, the Cup came to Europe.

The 2007 America's Cup Challenge

Which brings us to this year's America's Cup challenge in Valencia, Spain, where a €300 million sailing stadium district has been created to host the event. "Port America's Cup" is an enormous and spectacular piece of infrastructure that opens the event up for free to hundreds of thousands of spectators while creating a whole new centre of urban development for the Spanish city.

The Cup is fought out in three stages:

- 13 'Acts' of mixed fleet and one-on-one match racing where all competitors battle for rankings and bonus points in the Louis Vuitton Ranking Acts, held at various locations around Europe. - The 11 'flights' of one-on-one round robin match racing to determine which team gets to challenge the defending champion for the America's Cup. Teams are eliminated to produce four semi-finallists, then two finallists, and after a best-of-nine decider, a single challenger. - The 32nd America's Cup Match, in which the Louis Vuitton Cup winner challenges Alinghi in a best-of-nine series of match races.

The Louis Vuitton Cup Begins

At the completion of the ranking acts, Team Emirates New Zealand have secured top spot and maximum bonus points going into the Louis Vuitton Cup, edging out American contender BMW Oracle Racing, Italy's Luna Rossa Challenge and Spain's Desafio Español 2007 in the final ranking.

While the inclusion of fleet racing in the ranking acts can hide the performance potential of teams with a singular focus on once-on-one match racing, one thing has become clear - defending champion Alinghi is very much the team to beat. Winning four of seven races in Act 13, and with a worst finish of fourth against the field, Alinghi put on a dominant display of exceptional boat speed and teamwork.

Still, the Alinghi team will train alone for the next two months while the challengers develop and evolve in the heat of Louis Vuitton Cup competition.

William Hill Bookmakers list Alinghi as favourites, but with reasonably long odds currently paying $1.57 which could make a flutter worthwhile. Emirates Team New Zealand are second at $5.00, followed by BMW Oracle Racing at $5.50. Luna Rossa Challenge are a distant fourth at $11.00 and if there's any truth in the bookies' odds, Desafio Espanol are pretty much out of consideration at $17.00.

We'll be watching the contest with interest as the Louis Vuitton Cup kicks off on Monday.

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