Sweden lies third ahead of Great Britain and Canada in equal-fourth, while the Netherlands and Norway are tied for sixth place. But the biggest surprise of the day was the German performance, as the giants of the sport barely qualified for today's medal-deciding second round when collecting 20 faults, just squeezing into eighth place along with the Australians.
Reigning Olympic champion Rodrigo Pessoa (Brazil) and Rufus flew over the track to score a magnificent clear round. © Kit Houghton
The 13-fence course designed by Leopoldo Palacios and Steve Stephens was a work of genius and quickly brought the cream to the top. Starting out over an oxer, there was a gentle right-hand curve to a red vertical and then a left-hand run to a skinny vertical at three. It was here that the real work began as the following open water, narrow on take-off but a full 4.5m wide, was on an acute angle with little room for preparation and the fence-judge was busy raising that red flag all evening.
The following narrow red gate had the most slender of pencil-poles on top, a trademark characteristic of Palacios courses, and onward-bound horses found themselves deep to this, and then it was on to a double off a right-hand turn at six. With a triple-bar first element and an oxer to follow this proved influential, and many of the riders reported that the candy-coloured poles were difficult to see - "you definitely needed a horse with good eyesight on this track!" Canada's Ian Millar commented.
The following planks, flanked by a mighty dragon which, fortunately, the horses couldn't see, stood a maximum 1.60 metres tall, thus testing control after a forward ride from the previous double, and then the track curved left to the oxer at eight and sharp-right to the line that included a 1.60 m wall at nine with four strong strides to the following 1.50m oxer at 10. The horses that managed to jump clear to here were doing well but the next trap was in the triple combination at 11. Jumped off a left-hand bend it consisted of a 1.55m vertical to a 1.50m oxer and then a 1.55m vertical to finish. Despite the fact that it quickly became clear that the distance inside was tricky, riders kept coming in too strong and suffered the consequences time and again. This was followed by a 1.55m oxer with a 1.80m spread and finally, turning away from the in-gate, the last fence was a liverpool vertical standing at 1.60m.
With the 13 individual riders going first, it was Ireland's Denis Lynch who first found the key with a great round from Lantinus who picked up just a single time penalty. He had spotted the traps. He almost pulled Lantinus back to walk before tackling the triple combination and explained afterwards "you need to jump the first part as if it's a fence on its own and then push on for the second two elements - if you go in too forward there, you are going to have some part of it down. The course is very technical and very light - you have to concentrate all the way," he pointed out.
There was plenty of drama in the early stages, Azerbaijan's Jamal Rahimov taking a fall from Ionesco de Brekka at the penultimate oxer when the stallion straddled the poles, and the rider was subsequently taken to hospital for check-up but was released soon afterwards. Alexander Onischenko, pathfinder for The Ukraine, only got as far as fence three with Codar as the stallion refused to tackle the following water but it was the eight-fault performance of Christian Ahlmann with Coster who fell foul of the dragon planks at seven and then hit the first element of the bogey triple combination, and the 12 collected by Marco Kutscher and Cornet Obolensky who went in the water and then added eight more en route, that shook German confidence.
The Swedes, in stark contrast, were looking quite solid when Lotta Schultz and Calibra picked up just four faults to add to Peter Eriksson's eight with Jaguar Mail, and when Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum added another four faults to the German tally, lowering the opening vertical at the combination, there was a gasp of amazement. What on earth was happening to the hot favourites who normally prove so untouchable at this level of the sport? Even Meredith wasn't really sure what was going on.
"It's not like we are not used to pressure, it's just a big surprise here today," she said afterward. She was happy with her round with Shutterfly - "I was maybe too fast into the triple", she admitted, but she had expected that her team would have produced better results. So had here been a German miscalculation about their whole approach to this Olympic contest? Had they been over-confident in the early stages? "We had a plan, that we would use the first competition to train a bit the other day - it wasn't that we didn't take it seriously but maybe we didn't get that right," she said. "We are going to have to go back and sit together and discuss what has happened - it's certainly not what we expected," she added.
She said the course was "well set, but when I walked it I thought 50% of horses will jump into the water - there is almost a 90 degree turn there - and at the triple at the end you need to jump in short. We've only seen one clear so far, its a good, fair course but we will have to prepare for the second round tomorrow - if we get into the top eight teams tonight. If we do get through we won't be giving up, we will come out fighting," she insisted.
With three mistakes from Helena Lundback and Erbblume the Swedes began to falter, but then Rolf-Goran Bengtsson produced a sensational fault-free round from Ninja, the very first of the competition, and they were right back in the game - an extraordinary turn-around for the nation that has struggled so hard to survive in the Samsung Super League with FEI series this season and which is currently fighting relegation. With typical understatement Bengtsson said afterwards - "that went pretty well" - as his side registered a final score of 13 faults.
McLain Ward and the brilliant mare Sapphire soon followed with a pathfinding clear for the USA. "I hope the rest of the team has good fortune," he said, but he wasn't going to get too over-excited just yet. "It's not easy out there, only two clears so far but we've been building for this for over a year now with a great back-up team - we've sacrificed a lot and we will be disappointed if we go home without a medal. The Olympic Games is all about peaking at the right time. Sapphire was less sensitive today and she went great," he added.
The British were holding their own, Nick Skelton's eight faults with Russel followed by just four for both Tim Stockdale (Corlato) and Ben Maher (Rolette) but they would soon be hit hard by the news that John Whitaker's Peppermill was unwell and would have to be withdrawn. "He wasn't right coming out of the stable," said Chef d'Equipe Derek Ricketts, "we're not sure what's wrong, he may be tied up, but he couldn't jump like that. John is really very disappointed" the team manager explained.
They would now have to settle for the 16 faults they had on the board which would leave them on level-pegging with the Canadians who were boosted by a fantastic clear from Eric Lamaze whose stallion Hickstead was jumping like a cat. Mac Cone had collected 12 faults with Ole, and things were not looking so good when Jill Henselwood and Special Ed left four on the floor but Lamaze's clear was followed by just four faults, at the penultimate oxer, for Ian Millar and In Style. And he was in upbeat mood. "Our first two riders didn't have a good day today but they will clean up their act tomorrow - so see you on the podium!" he said with a smile.
The USA stayed strong, Laura Kraut's bouncing grey Cedric clear all the way to the very last and Will Simpson (Carlsson Vom Dach) and Beezie Madden (Authentic) collecting eight faults each. Madden however seemed to be en route to a perfect clear only to have an odd moment just before the triple combination when Authentic suddenly shook his head and ground to a halt. "This has happened a couple of times before," the rider explained, "if he gets an insect in his ear he goes crazy, and he started waving his head and didn't even see the fence". She circled and re-presented to finish the course. Without those eight faults the USA would be in the lead as tomorrow's second round gets underway but instead they kick off with a score of 12.
The Swiss meanwhile were most impressive. Sheer consistency - with just four faults each from Christina Liebherr (No Mercy), Pius Schwizer (Nobless M), Niklaus Schurtenberger (Cantus) and Steve Guerdat (Jalisca Solier) - also registered a 12 fault tally and there is something quietly confident about them. They have been showing uneven results in this year's Samsung Super League with FEI series, so how to explain this turn-up for the books? "Well we haven't actually had a bad season at all," said team manager Rolf Grass, "we were second in La Baule and second again at St Gallen and we haven't always been in a position to use our best horses and our best riders. But we've worked very hard to prepare for coming here," he said.
Just a single fault separates the joint-leaders, Switzerland and America, from Sweden in third going into today's second round, while there is just a single fence between the joint-leaders and the fourth-placed British and Canadians. The Dutch and Norwegians carry 17 faults and the Germans and Australians carry 20 as Round Two begins. Rolf Grass was not going to get too carried away by his side's good result today - "this is a Nations Cup, anything can happen and we are only halfway tonight," he said, and his anchorman Steve Guerdat was also staying sensibly Swiss - "I feel confident for my team," he said, "but tomorrow is another day and another course - let's wait and see."
And America's McLain Ward expressed similar sentiments when he said "yeh, we just have to keeping chipping away here, take it one day at a time."