It'll be a mouth-watering showdown between two New Zealand teammates for the Dressage Horse of the Year Show crown in Hastings tomorrow.
That's because John Thompson and his mount, JHT Antonello, won IRT CDI FEI Grand Prix Special (Title) in the premium arena of the Land Rover-sponsored marquee event in the southern hemisphere to put the heat on the Rio Olympian combination of Julie Brougham and Vom Feinsten at the Tomoana Showgrounds today.
Brougham, of Manawatu, and her handsome 14-year-old German import mount were the last combination to complete their routine in front of an appreciative audience but didn't do enough to impress judges Helen Hughes-Keen, Mura Love, Mary Seefried, Henning Lehrmann and Maria Schwennsen parked commandingly at the head of the arena.
The five officials had reserved that level of plaudits for Thompson, of Gordonton, Hamilton, and his 16-year-old Hanoverian Kiwi-bred dark brown gelding who fiancee Holly Leach owns.
"It's tit for tat and she's a chap on my heels when I win and I feel like I'm chapping her when she does," said the ebullient 28-year-old fulltime professional dressage exponent who was the HOY Show Dressage Rider of the Year in 2016.
He and his AJ Simson-bred mount, by Anamour & Flair, averaged 71.34 points compared with her 63-year-old rival who posted 69.915, ahead of Debbie Barke (Lucrative SW) on 65.085 and Sheena Ross (Parkridge Disco SW) on 64.957.
How that margin posted today will make a difference tomorrow remains to be seen between pace setters Thompson and Brougham.
While it wasn't official there was some suggestion Thompson, who was the reserve dressage rider in the Kiwi team to Rio Olympics, might have posted a record score today.
It's fair to say Jody Hartstone (Ali Baba, 63.894), Wendi Williamson (Don Amour MH, 62.809) and Paula Stuart (Aztec Lad, 61.894) are all within striking distance of each other in the elite field of seven.
Thompson said it was great of Brougham and him to strive to push the discipline with an eye on the World Equestrian Games at Tryon, North Carolina, in the United States in September. It'll be Dressage New Zealand's first team to compete overseas in more than two decades with Williamson the third national representative.
"She's been great for my journey up through the ranks and she's set the bar really high for us to follow so that's quite inspiring for me," he said of Brougham who was inducted into the HOY Hall of Fame on Thursday night.
Thompson said they were friends and their symbiotic relationship in the arena was something to revere at the higher echelons of any sport.
JHT Antonello, who he labelled as good red wine getting better with age, is coming out of recovery from bruised feet so he had only managed two rides on the horse in the past month.
"It wasn't a mental preparation but I feel like I had pulled it off, which is beyond expectations of what he had for this show."
When juxtaposed with Brougham's "modern and athletic" Vom Feinsten, JHT Antonello is more a "strong, robust New Zealand-bred type of horse".
"They are very different and they both have strong points as champions of our sport," he said, adding they would probably be the best two equine members of the discipline in the country.
For the record, JHT Antonello has posted only two third placings in the past 20 outings, including seven firsts.
Thompson, who has been in dressage for 12 years, said it was a 50-50 partnership between rider and horse.
"To me dressage is very similar to ballet so when we're dancing out there I feel like I'm the coach and he's my student. I lead but he still has to dance it.
"You know, I can give it all the commands and cues but he has to finish it off for me so it's a real partnership."
A good rider also had to "listen" to his horse.
Asked what was the magic today, Thompson said harmony which emphasised the special bond they had built in four years and today's scores endorsed that.
"It takes years to build that with your horse so you have to read all those fine signs that they are telling you. I feel we had a good partnership today and I made some good decisions in that competition ring."
The national team to the World Equestrian Games from September 10-23 also had that sense of affinity and Thompson felt he was holding his end of the bargain.
"It gives me good confidence to take on the world with my fellow team riders."
Asked what will be the difference in the final leg, GJ Gardner Homes CDI***FEI Grand Prix Freestyle (Title), from midday tomorrow to decide the Dressage HOY Show crown, Thompson said Brougham was known as the "Queen of Freestyle".
"I will try my hardest to equal her but I'll have to take my A game because she's really a star in the freestyle."
The former Kerikeri High School pupil, who left school at 16 to follow equine pursuits, said his brother, Charles, 31, and wife Robyn were professional dancers with the Australia Ballet Company so he opted to do the ballet version on horseback.
"So we both dance but I do it on horseback and he does it on polished floors with his wife," he said of Robyn who also is a ballet dance teacher in Melbourne.
Thompson said he did things horsey even before he could walk.
"It's in the blood and the DNA," said the rider whose parents, Cheryl and Mark, were dairy farmers in Waikato before emigrating to Australia.
Thompson, who gained his rider's apprentice in Mt Gambia in Queensland and on-and-off honed his skills in Europe for almost a decade, is under the tutelage of Lorne Joergensen, of Sweden.
He thanked his "amazing support team and the most wonderful fiancee in the universe".
Leach, of Hamilton, is his "eyes on the ground" and also an accomplished rider in her own right.
She won the HOY Show 5 and 6-year-old level 5 competitions this week.