“A true world championship track” was the resounding verdict from the riders after a cross-country day that tore the form book mostly to shreds.

Germany extended their dressage lead with some stunning cross-country performances, their first three team riders going clear. But they will be hoping these horses remain sound for tomorrow, their fourth team member, Ingrid Klimke — who’d been second after dressage — having had two refusals and a bucket load of time penalties.

The overnight leader and national darling Bettina Hoy secured her clear round for Germany by playing it safe at two of the most technical fences, incurring 7.2 time penalties in the process.

This dropped her behind Zara Phillips, who rode a sensational round, taking all the straight routes, to secure one of only 11 clear rounds inside the time and putting her in the lead going into the final phase. Bettina’s team mate and this year’s Luhmuhlen winner Frank Ostholt lies a close third on Air Jordan.

Zara Phillips and Toytown produce a clear round inside the time
Picture by Kit Houghton/FEI

It was a remarkable day’s competition, with faults coming thick and fast around a course that at the same time caused impressively few ugly falls. Many of the problems fell to horses and riders more used to finishing in the top three. Of the top 10 riders from the dressage, only four turned in clear rounds, and just one of these without time penalties.

Britain got off to an inauspicious start, when Call Again Cavalier glanced off the angled first element of the final water fence for Mary King. Daisy Dick, our second team rider, took the alternative route there but still stormed round inside the time on Spring Along, reviving British hopes with a fluid round Daisy described as “the best he’s ever done”.

Individuals Sharon Hunt and Oli Townend acquitted themselves marvellously, the former gaining only 13.2 time penalties, and the latter clocking up a sensational clear on Flint Curtis, though Oli said “neither of us has seen a course like that before”. They now lie 11th and 13th overnight respectively.

With these, and Zara’s brilliant clear in the bag, hopes were high that William Fox-Pitt would follow suit. No one could believe it when the horse ducked out of a relatively straightforward skinny brush after fence 15, the Normandy Bank.

“He locked on to the final element early, and shaved the line I was planning to take, getting there on a bad stride,” said a devastated William. “I am so sorry for the team after Daisy and Zara’s brilliant clears. But show jumping in that huge stadium tomorrow could still be very interesting. Event horses won’t have seen anything like it.”

William was not the only form upset. Andrew Hoy had an identical problem immediately afterwards on his Lexington winner Master Monarch, cementing a bad day for Australia in which only Clayton Fredericks on his Saumur winner Ben Along Time went clear, with 4.4 time pen. The Americans have now overtaken them to lie in bronze going into the show jumping.

The German team alone managed to turn in three clear rounds, with the result that Britain still lies in silver medal position despite Mary and William’s run outs, and even riders with 20pen have found themselves in reasonably strong positions at the day’s end. Oli Townend’s prediction yesterday that good jumping could change things significantly today has been spot on.

Though gold for Germany seems likely tomorrow, the big question now is whether Zara Phillips can deny deny them double gold, adding the world championship to her European title. She goes into the show jumping tomorrow with less than one fence in hand over Bettina Hoy. The bad news is that she has only jumped one clean show jumping round on Toytown at a horse trial this year — and gained time faults even then. The good news is that it was at least the very last round she did before WEG (at Hartpury).

Asked by H&H how she felt about it, Zara replied: “Hopefully that big arena will lift him. For the riders it will be daunting, but I’m really looking forward to it.”

Don’t miss this week’s Horse & Hound for in-depth reports on all the action in Aachen