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Victory at sea, cup-style. San Diego-based Stars & Stripes sweeps to 4-0 victory but site of 1990 races unsettled

AMERICA'S CUP ``down under'' is coming back up, and with it the right to stage a 1990 Olympic-style regatta expected to draw competitors from a dozen nations and billions of dollars in jobs, tourism, investment, and tax revenue. Dennis Conner, the robust San Diego drapery retailer, and his boat, Stars & Stripes, ``Yanked'' back yachting's oldest and most celebrated trophy Wednesday by defeating Australian defender Kookaburra III in choppy Indian Ocean waters. The victory gave Conner's boat a clean 4-0 sweep in the best-of-seven finals, thus regaining the cup that Australia had snatched from him in Newport, R.I., 3 years ago.

No sooner had Conner's 65-foot gun-smoke-blue yacht barreled past the finishing line in the fourth and decisive 24-mile race than President Reagan reportedly ordered a chartered jet to Western Australia to carry the Stars & Stripes crew to the White House for a victory ceremony Monday. The crew will ride through Manhattan Tuesday in a ticker-tape parade, arriving back in San Diego Wednesday.

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Perhaps not since the American hockey team defeated the Soviets in 1980 has an American sports victory aroused such intense national pride. The coveted ``Auld Mug,'' after all, had resided in the United States for 132 years until the Australians took it away in 1983, and Conner's triumph climaxed an all-out effort by various groups aimed at getting it back.

The Stars & Stripes triumph also marked the end of an arduous five-month regatta involving more than 350 one-on-one races among 16 teams from seven nations that collectively spent a staggering $200 million in hopes of winning the garish, 132-ounce Victorian ewer.

Conner's victorious entrance to Fremantle's Fisherman Harbor following his boat's final victory was greeted by 70,000 jubilant spectators. As Conner waved and smiled through lips thickly caked with his trademark white zinc sunblock, the skipper must have felt certain vindication for having ignominiously spent three long years labeled as ``the man who broke the longest winning streak in sports history.''

Until the defeat of Conner's yacht Liberty in Newport, Sept. 26, 1983, by Australia II, Perth millionaire Alan Bond's ``Wonder From Down Under'' boat, the United States entry had successfully defended the America's Cup since 1851, when the competition began. Yesterday's celebration was a fitting swan song for Conner, a 13-year veteran of six America's Cup campaigns. The former Army policeman, who refers to 12-meter yacht racing as ``war,'' and who wrote a book called ``No Excuse to Lose,'' is widely expected to retire from the helm this year.

Conner, son of a poor fisherman, grew up in San Diego hanging around the yacht club, as someone once put it, ``the way other kids hung out at pool halls.'' In the wake of Conner's recent victory in Fremantle, the big question still looms: Will Dennis bring the cup back to his hometown, making San Diego the fortunate host city of the 1990 America's Cup races?

Conner has estimated it will cost $30 million to stage the cup races in 1990. Speculation has arisen within the Stars & Stripes camp that Conner will auction off the right to host the America's Cup to the highest-bidding port city. Among the leading candidates are Long Beach and Santa Cruz in California; Newport (traditional home of America's Cup); Honolulu (where Conner trained last summer in preparation for the choppy seas and fierce Fremantle winds); or, of course, San Diego.

Selection of the host city, however, is not strictly up to Conner. It involves an America's Cup ``defense'' committee and a complex selection process stipulated in the contract Conner's Sail America foundation signed with the San Diego Yacht Club, whose flag Stars & Stripes flies. According to the agreement, within 30 days Sail America and the SDYC must select a committee of seven to 11 people, at least 51 percent of which must belong to the SDYC, which then has 30 days to decide the venue.

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Dr. Fred Frye, commodore of the SDYC, told the Monitor that the yacht club's board of directors had unanimously voted to keep the cup in San Diego, that Conner had concurred, and that, given recent support from the port and US naval authorities, it was ``90 percent sure'' to be the site.

The biggest problem, he said, would be docking space. This year's challengers came from the United States, Canada, Britain, France, Italy, and New Zealand - and already Japan, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, and Spain have announced their intention to compete in 1990.

Newport, ``could not possibly hold the cup,'' said Frye, because most of the boat slip space used during the 1983 America's Cup had been sold off since 1983 to condominium developers. Conner himself has a certain cool regard for Newport: ``I've been in three cups there, and I still haven't met the mayor.''

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