As the America's Cup challenger trials head to a two-boat showdown Jan. 25 between Prada and AmericaOne, the focus shifts to the secretive team the winner must race for the Cup. Team New Zealand has sidestepped the drama on Hauraki Gulf since October but has not been sitting by idly.

"The only thing harder than winning the America's Cup is defending it," the Kiwis say. So they've kept to themselves for more than three years, diligently testing and training after winning the trophy in a 5-0 rout in a boat called Black Magic in May 1995 off San Diego.

TNZ's two new jet-black boats were launched in September and have been used in trials four or five days a week since. The trials are private, away from the hubbub surrounding the challengers. All the challengers see is the needle-thin racers slipping silently by in the morning and returning under tow in the evening. The Kiwis have taken a unique approach to defending the Cup. Traditionally, defenders run competitive trials to pick the best boat, just as challengers do. But Team New Zealand reckoned there was not enough money in their small nation of 3.5 million to support several teams and put all their resources behind one team.

On Monday a few journalists were invited to watch the boats in a practice race. It was an uninformative session. The two boats separated quickly in light, shifty winds and there was little to measure performance against. Skipper Russell Coutts, the 1995 winner, and his veteran crew on NZL 60 fell behind young Dean Barker and the lads on NZL 57. The gap widened as breezes filled, and after 12 miles they called it a day.

If the Kiwis are nervous about a date with destiny Feb. 19 against the best of 11 challengers, they do not show it. They had a big edge on all foes in 1995, losing one race all season, and believe they have kept it.

All boats are faster now than then, however, and the secrets of Black Magic are no longer secret. Co-designer Doug Peterson took his knowledge with him to the Italian Prada team, where he now works.

But only Team New Zealand brought the winning boat home for a benchmark. "We've made NZL 32 [the '95 winner] a minute and a half faster around the course," TNZ operations chief Alan Sefton said, "and the new boats are much faster than that." NZL 32 was used for two years as a platform to test ideas before the new boats were built. No one else had that luxury.

Still, Coutts and his mates wonder how they will fare against the top challenger. Only once since the regatta opened in October has a challenger voluntarily run a trial against the Kiwis. That was Nippon, which proved woefully slow in the semifinals. How will TNZ match up against swifter AmericaOne or Prada?

"It's hard to tell since we haven't sailed against them," TNZ tactician Brad Butterworth said. "They've done a good job not sailing with us. It's going to be bizarre" when the two sides finally clash.

Butterworth and Coutts think Prada will beat AmericaOne in the challenger finals. "We think it's possibly a faster boat," Coutts said, "but they're very, very even teams."

If Prada is quicker, he said, the best-of-nine format will give the Italians time to take advantage. Most observers think AmericaOne, with five-time Cup veteran Paul Cayard at the wheel and four or five top sailors in the afterguard, has the more clever sailing team.

"But if Prada can win a couple of starts or just get even starts, the other guys are going to have a handful fighting them off," Coutts said.

Coutts said there is no bad blood between him and Cayard. In 1992, Cayard skippered the Italian boat Il Moro di Venezia to a stunning upset win in the challenger finals, coming back from a 4-1 deficit to beat Team New Zealand, 5-4. Coutts was on the Kiwi team, part of a group defending against a relentless legal attack from Cayard.

Cayard protested the Kiwis' unique bowsprit, which was ruled illegal. "But in the end," Coutts said, "neither team would have won the Cup. America{+3} was so much faster, it was just a question of whether you came in second or third. Who cares?"

All that counts in the America's Cup is winning. For New Zealand it is doubly significant because Auckland spent four years and $60 million preparing for the event and would hate to see it end quickly. Whoever wins gets to hold the next Cup competition, and the elaborate Cup Village could stand another go-round to amortize costs.

As for spending four years training in Cup boats without a race to sharpen their instincts, tactician Butterworth said he and Coutts had plenty of competition outside the Cup to keep sharp, both on the world match-racing circuit and in big-boat regattas around the globe.

But not racing for four months while being surrounded by Cup boats going at it hammer-and-tongs has been "the hardest thing I've ever done in sport," Butterworth said. "We think we're getting better--a lot better. But there's no way to measure our progress."

Are the black boats really fast or has someone else stolen the magic?

This much is known: No one has trained harder than the Kiwis, who have kept at it diligently for three long Southern Hemisphere summers, and no one had a better benchmark for developing boat speed. Coutts, Butterworth and their shipmates can get the sails up and down and find the wind shifts as well as anyone, and they're sailing in their own backyard.

They started first, so time is on their side. Now, finally, time is running out. "It's funny," jib trimmer Simon Daubney said. "We go along and go along thinking, 'Well, we're going in the right direction here.' Then suddenly it's time to complete the task. It's 'Hey, hang on, we're here!'

"In '95, we always felt if it came to a scrap in equal boats, we'd be able to back ourselves. We'd like to think we still can. Hopefully, if it comes to that, we're ready for a scrap."