To the victor go the spoils, which is why John Marshall and his dispirited Young America crew were in Auckland, New Zealand, today, packing up the wreckage of their failed America's Cup campaign, while America True skipper Dawn Riley was off in Fiji wiggling her toes in warm sand.

Riley's one-boat, $20 million America's Cup team is headed to the challenger semifinals Jan. 2, and she gave herself a few days off to get mentally ready. She delivered the coup de grace to Marshall's highly touted, $40 million entry from the New York Yacht Club on Sunday, dispatching Young America in a turnabout no one could have predicted.

So it goes in the high-stakes Cup game. "You don't go out to climb mountains and climb easy ones," said Marshall, the syndicate chief who was in his eighth Cup campaign. "You find the ones that will push you as hard as you can be pushed and you come down off the mountain a few times without getting to the top.

"I think this is a fabulous sport and a fabulous event," he said defiantly. "I just wish we'd done better."

So do hundreds of big-ticket supporters back home who sank cash into the Young America effort, the bulk of which was financed by individual donations. Marshall made no excuses for Young America's collapse after the first of its two Cup boats broke and nearly sank in November.

After the crew leaped off the ruined craft, then switched to a newer boat to keep competing, nothing went right. Young America lost nine of the next 13 races. "Fear of the boat became a factor," Marshall said. "The boat could have killed someone, and until the team built confidence in USA 58 [the new boat], they were gun shy."

"That was the turning point," agreed Riley, first female syndicate chief in Cup history. "When you lose confidence in the boat, you're done. Everyone is nervous in these boats when the wind gets over 18 knots, and they had more reason to be than anyone."

Young America's big-budget, two-boat juggernaut had been on every handicapper's list to make the six-boat semifinals when racing started in October, while U.S. rivals America True and Dennis Conner's Stars & Stripes were question marks with small budgets and one-boat stables.

But Marshall reckons "we made one big mistake . . . a year ago to continue design work for a couple of months longer and cancel our plans to sail in Newport [R.I.] in June and July. A longer period of sailing the new boats would have made a huge difference."

The upshot is that America True and S&S are still alive and in the game while Young America's hopes should end officially on Tuesday when the low-budget French entry Le Defi Francais must simply sail around the course alone to collect nine points and mathematically eliminate the New Yorkers.

To what does Riley attribute True's success? "We started early, we planned well and we made the best decisions for the resources we had," she said. With the first-ever mixed male-female Cup crew, a boat designed by relative unknown Phil Kaiko, and only about two-thirds of a modest, $20 million budget in hand even now, Riley had a lot to overcome.

But her team started sailing in the Hauraki Gulf under helmsman John Cutler almost a year ago in a leftover 1995 Cup boat, then launched its slender new yellow boat early and sailed it hard before the regatta began. The boat proved fast and crew work by then was solid.

The other U.S. surprise in the semifinal field is Stars & Stripes, Conner's $10 million entry that wasn't launched until September and looked ragged in the first round of trials. "Nothing went right," conceded helmsman Ken Read, "but remember, that was the first time we'd ever sailed against another boat.

"We made the decision to protect our resources and not risk damage to our only boat by sailing against anyone before the racing actually started. Dennis and I talked before Round Robin One. He asked if I could stomach going 4-6 in the first round. We decided we could and that's exactly how we finished.

"Then we got all new sails, much flatter than the first set, and all of a sudden we had speed, and with that came smarts. It was a different team all of a sudden, just as we'd expected."

Stars & Stripes, America True and the top-rated U.S. entry, Paul Cayard's two-boat AmericaOne syndicate, will square off against each other in the semifinals, along with the $70 million, two-boat Italian Prada team, the high-flying two-boat Japanese team on Nippon, and low-budget, one-boat Le Defi Francais. Everyone races everyone else twice, after which the two teams with the top records advance to challenger finals. The winner goes on to the best-of-nine Cup match against Team New Zealand in February.

So the best racing is yet to come. The shocker is that the U.S. team with the most resources and the highest profile is out of the picture. What will become of the Young America assets?

"We will decommission the boats and try to put everything away carefully," said Marshall, "so they are in good shape for the next Cup."

Wherever and whenever that may be.