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The champagne is well and truly on ice in Auckland, the

May 12, 1995

AUCKLAND, New Zealand (AP) _ The champagne is well and truly on ice in Auckland, the ``City of Sails,″ now that Team New Zealand is one race away from winning the America’s Cup.

Most of the country’s 3.5 million citizens were glued to television sets early Friday morning to watch their country’s Black Magic 1 trounce Dennis Conner’s Young America in the waters off San Diego half a world away.

They stomped, clapped, cheered and hollered.

The Kiwis lead 4-0 in the best-of-9 series which could be decided on Saturday, early Sunday New Zealand time.

``We’re going to win it,″ said Scott Sharon, a salesman who was among the hundreds of thousands who turned up late for work so he could watch the race.

Stores and offices stayed closed. Streets usually jammed with rush-hour traffic were remarkably quiet. Bars and restaurants opened early for pre-race celebrations.

The excitment was at its height at the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron headquarters which could soon be the new home of sailing’s most coveted prize.

``We’re still deciding where to put it,″ club official Trevor Jones said as he strolled through the squadron’s glittering trophy gallery. ``We had every major international prize here at some time or other, except for the America’s Cup.″

More than 300 people watched the fourth race in the squadron’s modest club house which sits in the shadow of Auckland’s grey steel harbor bridge.

They were nervously silent when the Americans pulled ahead at the start. But they shouted for joy as Black Magic crossed the finish line 3 minutes, 37 seconds ahead.

More than 1,000 people are expected to cram into the club on Sunday for a lavish champagne breakfast, one of dozens planned around the country for the fifth, and possibly last, race of the regatta.

``Pandemonium will break out,″ said Auckland lawyer Colin Lucas, a weekend sailor. ``But it’s not over yet. The bubble can always burst.″

Still, many New Zealanders are on the verge of euphoria. There’s talk of declaring a national holiday to celebrate. More than 100,000 people have bought red socks, the official lucky charm of the Kiwi campaign.

A huge red sock flies atop an Auckland office tower.

The Kiwi crew have become national heroes, second only in stature to Sir Edmund Hillary, the conqueror of Mount Everest.

Business people are talking of a potentially huge economic boost to Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city which sits astride two expansive harbors. There’s cautious expectation of a real estate bonanza.

But most talk is about Conner, universally known here as ``Dirty Den″ for his uncompromising tactics both off and on the water.

``I think it’s wonderful our boys are beating him,″ taxi driver Lilian Beere crowed. ``He needs to be put in his place. And we’re going to do it.″

New Zealanders have never forgiven Conner for insinuating in 1987 that a Kiwi syndicate cheated when it built a 12-meter boat of fiberglass. And the next year, during a news conference after turning back New Zealand’s challenge, he said to Kiwi boat designer Bruce Farr, ``Get off the stage, you loser.″

New Zealand is the smallest nation ever to challenge for the cup but it is among the world’s leaders in per capita boat ownership. No town or city is more than 60 miles from the sea.

``Yachting is not a rich man’s sport here,″ company director Jeni Tidmarsh said. ``People love boats and they will love staging an America’s Cup competition.″

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