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Equestrianism: Zara Phillips and Team GB set up a showdown for gold with Germany at Greenwich

Cross-country heroics push home team up to second as three-day event nears climax

In a bloated modern Olympics, even the three-day eventing takes four days. After three-quarters of them in the glorious setting of Greenwich Park, Great Britain, third in Beijing, remain serious medal contenders: last night they were second behind the defending champions Germany, having improved their third place in the team event from the first two days, which were devoted to dressage.

In today's finale there will be two rounds of jumping, the first to decide the team medals and the second the individual medals, where Britain are less well placed but not out of contention: Tina Cook lies fifth, one place ahead of the 51-year-old Mary King, whose round was interrupted by one of yesterday's many spills, to a rider in front of her. The one disappointment was that William Fox-Pitt, ranked No 1 in the world, collected penalty points in the team's final ride, leaving them behind the Germans but just ahead of Sweden, with the veteran Mark Todd hauling New Zealand into fourth place. Australia had a bad day and dropped to sixth behind the United States.

The individual event leader is Germany's Ingrid Klimke from Sara Algotsson, one of two Swedish sisters, and Todd.

As the spectacular cross-country event succeeded dressage yesterday, the guesstimated 50,000 visitors included several members of the royal family, who saw the Queen's granddaughter play her part with a fine round. Like her team-mates, Zara Phillips paid tribute to the crowd support and atmosphere, while admitting that the noise drowned out the stopwatch that riders rely on to beep every minute as they keep track of their time. It was her performance as the third British rider out that briefly pushed the team into first place as the overnight leaders Germany initially lost their way with heavy time penalties for Peter Thomsen and Dirk Schrade.

Greenwich's demanding course of just over three miles had been one of the main sources of outrage for those local residents who had protested in vain that they did want this event in their backyard. The 28 fences designed by Sue Benson were based around London and Greenwich Park themes beginning with the Diamond Jubilee Hedge – framed in a large diamond – and continuing through The Planet (in homage to the adjacent Observatory), into the two Tower of London fences inside the main arena that had been flat-packed to the venue. The Royal Greenwich Borough, with its vertiginous slope, caused fewer problems than might have been expected, but there were still a number of falls, which caused delays of more than an hour in all.

King on Imperial Cavalier (owned, like Bolton Wanderers, by Eddie Davies), became the early leader – something she had not realised until being told by the BBC interviewer that her penalty points had been reduced because of the interruption. "He was very nervous of the crowds but it was wonderful to have everybody behind us," she said.

Hold-ups on Sunday had been caused by the weather, but though it was fine yesterday the course remained more slippery than the riders would have liked, and the fallers included Ireland's Michael Ryan and Camilla Speirs. The Canadian Hawley Bennett-Awad received medical treatment after her fall but was reported to be in stable condition.

Nicola Wilson from Darlington had set the tone and standard for Team GB in doing her job as the "pathfinder" on Opposition Buzz, effectively carrying out a recce for the other riders while going round well inside the time allowed of 10 minutes three seconds. She agreed that the noise from the spectators could have been disconcerting for home riders and their horses, but overall they seemed thrilled with the support.

Phillips was delighted with her round on High Kingdom, also collecting no penalty points to improve her overall position. "He lost a front shoe so it was even harder for him, but he was amazing and really grew up today. It is very slippery, especially coming down a hill, and it's twisty and turny and hilly. You've just got to try to ride as fast as you can but look after them [the horses] as well. You just have to hope that your horse deals with the noise and just focuses on the job."

Cook on Miners Frolic emulated Phillips to take Britain back into a slender lead from the Swedes and Germans, increasing her pace over the second half after being briefly behind the clock. "He is bred to race, thank goodness, as I'm not bred to go fast, and he really picked up the time," she said. "It helps when you've got a fantastic team around you and the first three going clear. We're feeling brilliant and the more horses that can go through to the show jumping with good scores will, hopefully, put pressure on the others."

That left Fox-Pitt, ranked No 1 in the world, but his mount Lionheart looked desperately tired as they finished with 9.20 penalty points, which failed to improve Britain's score and ruined his own individual medal prospects. Overall, however, it sets up a potentially thrilling day over the jumps today.