The first people on hand to congratulate Dawn Riley's America True for knocking Dennis Conner out of the America's Cup challenger semifinals Friday arrived by truck, bearing gifts.

It was the Italians from neighboring Prada, bearing so much champagne and beer for True's rousing victory party that they needed a forklift to offload the pallet, which was wrapped in a bright red bow. Then they helped drink it and danced the night away.

Prada was happy for Riley but even happier for itself. The win in the last race of challenger semifinals eliminated Conner's Stars & Stripes and guaranteed that the $50 million team from Punta Ala would advance to the best-of-nine challenger finals against an old ally, San Franciscan Paul Cayard and his AmericaOne. Prada was always considered the favorite in the challenger fleet but fell into danger with a dismasting and three losses in the semifinals, and needed help digging out.

In distress, Prada showed just how badly it wants the Cup. With Stars & Stripes rampaging up its back for the last spot in the finals, Prada's legal team pulled out the long knives and filed two protests seeking disqualification of Stars & Stripes, one for using a purportedly illegal mainsail, another for an earlier violation of Cup rules that they said rendered Conner's team unfit to race for the Cup.

It promised to be an ugly legal battle, but the issues became moot when America True romped to a 1-minute 32-second victory in light winds on the Hauraki Gulf. Conner was a goner, and when buttercup-yellow True sailed past Prada's dock on the way to its own berth in the Viaduct Basin Friday night, the Italian group, outside to applaud, was noisy and big.

The Cup was back to being fun again and you could almost hear a sigh of relief. It won't last. "This is only the beginning," said Sir Peter Blake, head of Cup defender Team New Zealand, which faces the winner of the Prada-AmericaOne finals for the Cup next month. "Just wait."

Indeed, sources inside the Prada camp have said they have legal challenges waiting for every team in the regatta except Nippon. Now it's down to AmericaOne and Team New Zealand, both of which can expect trouble from the Italians if they get Prada on the ropes.

Fueled by the fortune of Patrizio Bertelli, head of the fashion empire Prada and a competitor said to be obsessed with detail, Prada promises to play the game as hard as it has been played. With two boats, an essentially unlimited budget and one of the most experienced Cup hands in the world running operations--eight-time Cup competitor Laurent Esquier--Prada cannot be taken lightly.

By most accounts the two sleek, silver and red boats are the fastest in the challenger fleet. They were co-designed by Doug Peterson, who codesigned the last two Cup winners, America3 and Team New Zealand. They were launched in June, months before any of the other challengers except Nippon, which is now gone, and have had all the resources needed to develop sails, rudders, keels, masts and the other technical variables that produce speed on the water.

Prada was 26-3 in preliminary challenger rounds but fell to 7-3 in the semifinals and wound up vulnerable at the end. The sailors looked rattled when things started going wrong, and wound up giving up a win to AmericaOne on a protest call in close combat.

With their backs against the wall, the Italians lashed out on the legal front. "If the idea was to rev us up before the big race," said Tom Whidden, Stars & Stripes' tactician, "maybe it did. If it was gamesmanship, maybe it worked."

Whatever the reason, Stars & Stripes never was a factor in the race against True that, if it had won, would have forced a sudden-death showdown with Prada for the right to advance.

Prada has already taken some potshots at Cayard, who sailed for Italy in the 1992 Cup series as skipper of Il Moro di Venezia. He remains a hero in Italy for that, but his image took a pounding there last week when Prada suggested he would let Stars & Stripes win their last meeting to help Conner in his quest to overtake Prada.

When AmericaOne sailed in after that race, Prada's shore crew donned Pinocchio noses and waved from shore, implying Cayard fibbed when he said he would try to win against Conner.

The accusations clearly shook Cayard, who insisted he had raced to win.

It's all part of the complicated game in the Cup, where psychological and legal ploys can turn out to be as important as skill on the water. Prada, whose skipper and tactician are in their first Cup campaigns, may need all the tricks it can muster to face down the five-time Cup veteran Cayard.

The Standings

Semifinals in Auckland, New Zealand




a-Stars & Stripes736


America True282

b-Le Defi Francais281.5

x-in challenger finals; a-deducted one point for illegal

rudder; b-deducted one-half point for a collision

(Each team sailed against the

others twice. Victories were worth one point each. The top two boats advance to the

best-of-nine challenger finals.)

Friday's race

America True def.

Stars & Stripes by

1 minute 32 seconds.