Alan Bond says he's glad the New York Yacht Club picked Dennis Conner and his yacht Liberty to defend the America's Cup. Bond, who heads the Australian challenge, says John Kolius "would have been much harder to beat."

But there's a hollow ring to that claim, given Bond's fierce, three-year rivalry with Conner, and when Bond was asked to back it up with a reason, he only said, "Because we've watched him (Kolius) race."

If Bond indeed was watching the U.S. competitors this summer, he knows Kolius performed a near-miracle with aged Courageous, playing every card he was dealt for all it was worth, and still couldn't outrun the veteran Conner. By contrast, Conner's was a show of classic restraint. Even Kolius agrees "they (the NYYC) picked the right boat."

Conner won all three of the trial series of races to select a U.S. defender, finishing with a record of 34-17. In each series, he saved his better sails and tactics for last, and at the close of each trial he was all but unbeatable.

Unlike the Australians, he never stomped his opponents. He sized them up in the early going of each series and made adjustments until he was fast enough to finish ahead. It left observers with the sense they'd never quite seen all Conner had to show, and the other day he confirmed that.

"Why show them?" he asked. "If you do, three days later they have it, too."

Now, with the most prestigious prize in yachting about to go on the line for the 25th time in 132 years when the final Cup series starts Tuesday, Conner has a few cards yet left to play.

At 8 a.m. on Labor Day Sunday, while most of his crew took the day off, he was at work in Liberty's sail shed, taping up little imperfections in a brand new, high-tech mast.

Like a happy child at play, the portly Conner danced from one fitting to the next, cutting strips with a razor and smoothing over fittings and screw holes with Teflon tape that costs $70 a roll.

"How does that look?" he asked a know-nothing observer. "Don't you think the wind will like that? If you were the wind, wouldn't you rather go over this nice smooth tape than that jagged old screw?"

Conner is flying. He has escaped the desultory moods of midsummer, when he and the NYYC were engaged in a war of rules over the Aussies' radical new keel design that decimated the challenge opposition.

He waxes lyrical about the new mast, launching into mathematical diatribes about its lower center of gravity, which he claims will reduce "pitching moment" by some squared factor that winds up being worth 1,000 pounds of dead weight.

And he talks obliquely about experiments with changing Liberty's ballasting between races to fine-tune her to specific conditions. "We'll do whatever the rules allow," he said. "I don't want to stir that up."

Meantime, the Aussies were out on the race course, looking back over the horizon for their hapless British opponents and turning left whenever they saw a red race-marker buoy, as they have done all summer.

"Everyone says they're fast," said Conner, "but compared to what?"

Conner and Liberty proved this summer to be fast compared with whatever came along. "This dog can point," he said admiringly of his red yacht, and whenever she couldn't point high enough or go fast enough to win, he found a way to make her better.

Over the weekend the Liberty camp bade a symbolic final farewell to its preoccupation with the mysteries of Australia and her winged keel. Crewmen disassembled the wings they recently attached to the bottom of Liberty's trial horse, Freedom. After only brief testing against a winged opponent, Conner evidently is unimpressed.

"The experiment is over," said a Liberty crewman.

On Monday, after a weekend off that left Conner shaking with nervous energy he had nowhere to burn and wandering Newport's streets in search of diversion, Liberty resumed the sail-testing and speed-testing regimen that carried Conner to victory in 1980. She is clearly a faster boat than the one that started the summer's trials in June.

That same day Australian syndicate manager Warren Jones was telling the press his boat wouldn't even need to be remeasured before the final series because "we haven't made any changes to her."

There won't be any more radical changes to Liberty, Conner said. "At this point, if there were things we should have done and didn't, we'd be in rough shape."

Will his advantage, then, be his boat's summer of fine tuning and the crew's racing edge, honed in three months of close competition while the Australians danced their daily victory dances?

"I hope so," said Conner, grasping at a chain link fence and feigning a frantic escape climb. "I hope we have some little edge."