Belgium's Karin Donckers threatened the first-session lead established by Australia's Lucinda Fredericks as the second tranche of eventing riders took their turn in the dressage arena at Sha Tin in Hong Kong tonight.
However, despite a brilliant performance from Gazelle de la Brasserie, Donckers had to settle for second place as the Australians took an even firmer grip on the team leaderboard when Megan Jones and Irish Jester charmed the Ground Jury to slot into third.
With Clayton Fredericks in fifth the Aussies hold three of the top-five placings ahead of tomorrow's final dressage session and have a 19-point lead over the USA in second while team Germany lies third.
There was deep disappointment for the hard-hit French however when, following the withdrawal of Jean Teulere's Espoir de la Mare due to injury on Thursday, Nicolas Touzaint's Galan de Sauvagere suffered the same fate tonight.
The partnership's non-participation only became public moments before they were expected to appear in the arena and, during an emotional press conference during which Touzaint looked devastated but remained composed, it was revealed that the horse with which he took individual gold and team silver at last summer's European Championships had become mysteriously unsound.
Thierry Touzaint, uncle of Nicolas and also French team trainer, explained that the 14 year old gelding had taken fright while standing in his stable during the thunderstorm that rolled over Hong Kong early yesterday morning. "He fell over but got up again and we didn't think there was much wrong with him but later in the day he began to go lame and today it was much worse" Thierry explained.
Yesterday Nicolas rode him and was concerned about his condition but, in the hope that he would improve and without any clear understanding of what was wrong with him even after veterinary inspection, he persisted again today but had to admit defeat. "He just wasn't right - we think perhaps he has injured his stifle or it could be a tendon but as yet we are not certain" Thierry explained.
This was devastating news for the defending Olympic champions but Didier Dhennin and Ismene du Temple registered a good score of 42.80 yesterday and currently lies tenth while, although reduced to just a three-man side, Eric Vigeanel (Coronado Prior) and Jean Renaud Adde (Haston D'Elpegere) could keep them in the game if they can produce something special tomorrow morning.
China's Alex Hua Tian was rewarded with a mark of 50.00 for his test with Chico after recovering brilliantly from a spooky moment in the early stages.
"I wasn't sure what to expect because Chico is quite inexperienced" Alex said afterwards, "but I think he did very well. He only did his first three-star at the end of last season and a score of 50.00 is not bad at all. It's not so long ago that we were earning marks of 70 so I'm actually very pleased. And I'm hugely proud to be here, there is no better feeling" added the 19 year old who trains with Lucinda and Clayton Fredericks in England.
The Sha Tin arena looked wonderful under floodlights but some of the horses were distracted by their own image in the big corner-screen while others hardly noticed it at all. New Zealand's Andrew Nicholson wondered whether it was the screen or the Olympic flame that seemed to disturb his gelding Lord Killinghurst - "he was tense at the start but its hard to know what was bothering him" the rider pointed out. However he still earned a mark of 44.60 which was good enough for joint-12th place - "and we'll see what happens on Monday in cross-country" he said, clearly expecting to improve his position.
Rebecca Holder gave the US team a massive boost with a tremendous test from Courageous Comet. "Normally he's a show-off and I was hoping the lights and crowd would help him to bring out his best, and they did!" she pointed out, her score of 35.70 good enough to leave her in fourth place and ensuring that the USA continues to shadow the Australian leaders in the team rankings.
Brazil's Saulo Tristao created the biggest sensation of the evening when, instead of executing one of the difficult flying changes, his 10 year old mare Totsie boiled over and performed a movement that looked more like a cross between levade and capriole - much to the astonishment of the crowd.
The harmony between Megan Jones and Irish Jester however was a joy to behold, the 15 year old Irish-bred content to please his rider to the very best of his ability and showing obedience and willingness throughout an accurate and athletic test. Megan bred, broke, produced and developed the handsome grey and admitted that this adds to her satisfaction at taking him to Olympic level, but she also got the prize for the coolest interviewee of the day.
"This isn't hot!" she insisted after giving Jester a well-earned kiss. Many of her peers were looking more than a little over-heated after their dressage efforts but Megan looked like she had just been for a quiet hack as she explained that she is well used to hot conditions as she is based in South Australia - "now it gets REALLY hot there!" she pointed out. And to prove to herself that the Hong Kong climate was not going to take a huge toll on her horse on Monday the 31 year old ran around the Olympic cross-country track earlier in the day today. "I sweated a lot" she said disarmingly, "but I had already walked it once so I wanted to see what it would be like going a little faster and it wasn't so bad" she added while her listeners stood gasping in amazement.
The Olympic eventing dressage has already proved a challenge for many but Karin Donckers remained unfazed as she brought tonight's session to a close with a classic exhibition from Gazelle. "It felt almost like riding at home, not at the Olympic Games" she said, after being rewarded with a mark of 31.70. "My horse was 100% focused and we made no mistakes. She was so relaxed we could just enjoy ourselves and it was a great feeling" Karin added.
It was the perfect end to an exciting day, but with 25 more still to go before the dressage phase is completed tomorrow morning there could be further changes to the first-phase leaderboard.