Still, the indefatigable New Zealand team appeared to have a shot at winning Wednesday's race with a 65-meter lead going into the second gate. But that advantage disappeared after three lead changes on the upwind leg, which put Oracle in the lead to stay.

When it was over, Australian-born skipper Jimmy Spithill brought the Oracle boat in close for a victory lap as water cannons in the background trumpeted the victory. Owner Larry Ellison jumped aboard to exclaim, "Hey guys, you just won the America's Cup!"

New Zealand skipper Dean Barker was heartbroken, saying he was "gutted" to not get the last one and "take this Cup back to New Zealand."

Few envisioned such drama.

Ellison's decision to stage the 34th running of the Cup in San Francisco Bay using ridiculously fast and expensive boats was looking like a bust. The event was marred by allegations of cheating, resulting in a two-race penalty for the Oracle team, and by the death of a sailor. The event also isn't likely to be the economic boon San Francisco city leaders were hoping for.

Much of that was an afterthought Wednesday as thousands gathered on the San Francisco waterfront, surrounding hills and even the balconies of a cruise ship that was docked in port to witness history.

"It's an opportunity of a lifetime. We had to take advantage of it," said Mark Silva, a Windsor general contractor who attended the event with his wife and another couple.

So many people swarmed America's Cup Park that fire officials at one point shut down access for fear of overloading the pier, according to a San Francisco woman who was turned away. She was told there were in excess of 45,000 people on the piers.

Just a month ago, America's Cup Park was virtually abandoned. "There was nobody here," said Michelle Carrington, a Greenbrae resident whose parents live at Oakmont.

Carrington said she never gave up on the event or on the Americans winning it, even when they fell behind 8 to 1. "I'm not a fair weather fan," she said.

There are few examples of similar comebacks in major sports. In sailing, only the epic 1983 America's Cup regatta, in which the Australians overcame a 3-1 deficit against skipper Dennis Conner to wrest the Cup from the New York Yacht Club, ending the longest winning streak in sports history, comes close to the feat pulled off by Ellison's crew.

As such, many spectators Wednesday openly wondered whether the game was rigged.

Jim Archbold of Petaluma, who shared a $1.53 million payout in 2003 after correctly picking all six consecutive winners of horse races at Del Mar north of San Diego, put Oracle's odds of coming back from such a deficit at about 10 percent.

"Maybe Larry wrote a check to someone," Archbold said while he and his wife, Sally, sipped from plastic cups filled with $18 Cakebread chardonnay.

One East Bay man who gave his first name as Micha said he decided to root for the Kiwis on principle.

"It would give me faith if the Kiwis win because it would mean it wasn't fixed," he said.

But many New Zealand fans appeared resigned to the outcome even before the race got underway. "They'll still be heroes," said Wilma Mason, a native New Zealander and San Francisco nanny who brought her charge, 4-year-old Matty, with her to the waterfront races.

Cloverdale resident Sharon Yepiz, who attended the race with her husband, John, said staging the event in San Francisco Bay allowed people like her who have only a passing interest in the sport to see and feel it up close.

She said she'd liked to see it return to the city again next time.

"It's been an incredible experience," Yepiz said. "I'd like to thank Larry Ellison."

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.