And the rich get richer.

That's a popular refrain in sailboat racing, where boats leading a fleet get to pick their way through tricky winds, taking advantage of shifts and puffs while the boats behind get second choice.

In this America's Cup it's proving to be literally true as two of the wealthiest boat owners, by placing one-two in the Louis Vuitton Cup quarterfinals, have acquired the one thing money can't buy -- time.

"For us and Alinghi," said Chris Dickson, skipper of billionaire Larry Ellison's Oracle/BMW, "time is our friend. We've just come from a half-hour meeting where [design leader] Bruce Farr had us going through a long list of improvements they've been working on. I won't tell you what's on the list but we've got plenty to work through."

Likewise, said Russell Coutts, skipper of billionaire Ernesto Bertarelli's Swiss entry Alinghi, "One of the good things about the way this series is set up is that we now have 3 1/2 weeks off. We've got all sorts of ideas, but to do something with them you need time. It's your most valuable asset."

By winning their best-of-seven quarterfinal matches quickly with identical 4-0 shutouts, Alinghi and Oracle/BMW advanced directly to the four-boat semifinals, which don't start until Dec. 9. Their opponents will emerge from this week's best-of-seven repechage matches pitting OneWorld against Stars & Stripes and Prada vs. Sweden's Victory.

It means that while the others beat each other up on the race course in a struggle to avoid elimination, Alinghi and Oracle can head off in seclusion to test and optimize innovations in boat design, keel and rudder shapes, rigging, crew work and sails, all in a bid to get faster.

And while the others use up more of their limited allotment of sails, Alinghi and Oracle can save their best for later. Each competitor is allowed 45 sails during the Louis Vuitton Cup. "New sails are fast," said Dickson. "Obviously we'll be able to save our new ones for racing," while repechage racers use theirs just to stay alive.

The format is playing out just as race organizers had hoped. Team New Zealand routed Prada, the challenger in 2000, in a 5-0 shutout to retain the America's Cup. Afterwards, Louis Vuitton Cup competitors complained they were hampered by a schedule of too much racing and not enough free time to test and improve the boats.

That prompted a change that benefits the top boats. "For years," said Bruno Trouble, former French skipper and founder of the Louis Vuitton Cup in 1983, "the challenger selection process was run by the weaker teams. They were in the majority and they set it up to keep everyone involved as long as possible. This time, of nine challengers, five were seriously aiming to win.

"As the majority, they created a tougher process which eliminates the weaker teams early in the game. The idea is, don't waste days and days sailing against weak teams because you don't learn anything," said Trouble.

The hope is that the new process will produce not just a challenger, "but a strong challenger that will be a threat to Team New Zealand," he said.

Over the break, Alinghi and Oracle are using their tuneup boats to test innovations to the race boats on the Hauraki Gulf. The changes they make will likely be small but, in sum, significant. Those that prove faster in two-boat testing will be kept, those that don't will be discarded. It's a scientific process, and science takes time.

Coutts, the Alinghi skipper, knows the value of such lengthy testing. He was skipper of Team New Zealand in 2000 when the twin black defense boats dueled together off Gulf Harbor for months, within sight of the Louis Vuitton Cup contenders battling away on the race course. The two-boat testing wasn't as interesting as racing, said Coutts, who wound up working three years for a mere five days of competition. But it was successful. Prada never led at a turning mark in that five-race Cup final.

Oracle owner Ellison, who sailed as navigator during early rounds before replacing himself with Cup veteran Dickson in the afterguard, is not around for his team's testing sessions. "I have to go back to work for three weeks [as CEO of Oracle software], but hopefully I will come back early and Chris will at least let me sail USA 71 [the tuneup boat]," he said.

Oracle struggled in the early going but reeled off 11 straight victories after Dickson came aboard to work as tactician, replacing Ellison in the afterguard. Ellison gave him a strong vote of confidence after the team's quarterfinal win.

"Adding Chris was hugely important," he said, "but all the afterguard are communicating better because of . . . having Chris there."

Alinghi's billionaire owner, the Swiss pharmaceutical magnate Bertarelli, has managed to stay aboard his boat, also as navigator, and has no plans to step off. "Right now it is working," he said. "The team is very balanced. I get told off when I make a mistake and I'm pleased when I do something right. It's been a good fit and I think it's good for the team as well."

Oracle/BMW tops fellow U.S. entrant OneWorld on Nov. 16 to wrap up quarterfinal sweep. OneWorld still has chance to advance in repechage stage.