SAN FRANCISCO -- Poor Larry Ellison.

For months, the general smugness of the Bay Area public and its antipathy toward the billionaire who brought the America's Cup to San Francisco led many to actually will his Oracle (ORCL) Team USA to lose and root for New Zealand instead.

"I've never seen a town so much against the local guy," said Ivor Wilkins, editor of the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron magazine in town covering the America's Cup. "We can't get over as New Zealanders meeting people saying how they want us to take the cup away -- on the street, on the bus, everywhere. All the New Zealanders are talking about that, going, 'How crazy is that?' "

But over the weekend, as defending champion Oracle began to claw its way back onto the scoreboard by winning two of three races in some of the best racing ever seen in America's Cup history, the emotional tide appeared to be shifting.

For those who made the effort to watch the races from Marina Green or America's Cup Park along The Embarcadero on Sunday, cheers erupted and American flags waved as commentators announced Oracle Team USA's widening lead during Race 9. As Oracle's 72-foot catamaran with the towering wing sail charged toward the finish line, hundreds of spectators who had been watching the first part of the race on big screens around the park picked up their children and literally ran to the edges of Piers 27/29 to watch.


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"I love 'em 'cause they never give up," said Ken Beard, 62, a sailor from Walnut Creek. "Larry's got an ego, but I love the guy. I've been sailing for 35 years. This is my dream, having the America's Cup in my playground."

The attitude adjustment seemed to come Saturday during a critical moment of Race 8, said Mark Rochefort, 66, from Cambria. He sensed the mood shift when the Kiwi boat nearly capsized and Oracle Team USA, down seven points, took the lead. The crowd roared, he said.

"If there's anything Americans pull for," he said, "it's the underdog."

Because of a previous penalty that cost Oracle two races before the America's Cup even started, the team still needs eight more victories to retain the trophy it won in 2010. New Zealand needs just two wins and could wrest the cup away from the Americans as early as Tuesday.

And many casual observers and sailing fans wouldn't mind if it did.

"I think it's going to teach Larry Ellison a big lesson that money doesn't buy you everything," said one San Francisco spectator named Sebastian who came to watch the races Saturday but didn't want his last name used. "It will give us a good excuse to go to New Zealand and watch the next one."

Since the planning stages two years ago, Ellison and his team have at times been their worst enemies, overpromising the number of challengers that would compete, and well as the economic benefits to the city. The design of the catamaran has been criticized as too dangerous and expensive, and just days before the final match began this month, the team was penalized in a cheating scandal for adding extra weight to a smaller boat used in a preview regatta last year. Since this regatta began in July with the challenger series, Ellison has done little to ingratiate himself, making no public appearances. His only sightings have been when TV cameras have caught him on his boat.

When Oracle was losing 6-0 last week, the San Francisco Bay Guardian wrote that it "couldn't be happier for the Kiwis."

"We feel vindicated by this great act of karmic justice to watch Ellison's team not just losing badly," the paper wrote, "but being utterly blown out of the water by the straight-shooting team from Down Under."

Sailing purists are also taking issue with Ellison and Oracle Team USA. There's an undercurrent among them who want to see the America's Cup return to more graceful, traditional monohull boats, and the Kiwis have suggested that's what they would do if they won the Cup.

"I secretly want the Kiwis to win," said Don Wallace, a winemaker from Healdsburg. "This is like Formula 1 racing. In some ways it's remarkable and wonderful, but it takes away the romance of sailing."

Others are bothered that while the American flag flies over Oracle Team USA, only one American remains on board after tactician John Kostecki, who grew up sailing in the San Francisco Bay, was kicked off last week.

"The people rooting for New Zealand are rooting for their national pride," said Steve Anderson, 42, of Oakland, who watched the races Sunday from Piers 27/29. "But I don't feel that buy-in for the U.S. They've got the flag on the ship, but not the Americans."

In New Zealand, the Kiwis are getting up early and hosting champagne breakfasts to watch the races on TV. "It's a frenzy," said New Zealander Paula Greenville. In San Francisco, she said, "even people in the hotels don't know much about the Cup, where it is and who's winning."

Contact Julia Prodis Sulek at 408-278-3409.