A ‘flat’ Horsham saw their seven-game unbeaten run ended by runaway league leaders Cray Wanderers at Hayes Lane on Saturday.
The top-of-the-table clash was somewhat of a damp squib with goals in each half from Junior Dadson and a Joe Taylor penalty putting The Wands on the way to victory.
The Hornets also had Lewis Hyde limp off with a groin problem and then saw Dan Pearse sent off with 20 minutes to play.
Horsham do remain second, they now just have a one-point lead over Ashford United, who have a game in hand, and two over fourth-placed Hastings United.
Hornets boss Dominic Di Paola said: “We did not start particularly well and sat off them a bit much. Once we got into them and figured out what we were trying to do it was a relatively even game.
“The difference in the first half is they had one good shot and scored from it and we had one and hit the goalkeeper.
“In the second half they had a penalty and we should have had a penalty. But they were the better team, no doubt about it. They are very clinical and got what they should out of the game.
“It did not help having a player sent off for a tackle that was never a red. A few things went against us, but looking at the balance of it, they were definitely the better side.
“The only negative on the day was that I’m not sure we gave the best account of ourselves. I could never accuse the boys of not being up for it, it was just a bit flat.
“I think it was the first time we have really missed Charlie Harris, he keeps the ball well from deep and we missed that. Take nothing away from the boys that started, but you are going to miss a player of Charlie’s quality especially with Jack Brivio not feeling 100 per cent.”
The Hornets made one change from the side that won 2-1 at Hythe Town with Kieran Lavery replacing Chris Smith, although Steve Metcalf was back on the bench after missing two games.
After an early bit of Horsham pressure, Cray recorded the first effort as Ben Mundele took advantage of a ricochet and forced a save from Josh Pelling.
On 19 minutes, Lee Harding’s low square ball to the edge of the six yard box saw O’Toole denied by a close-range save by Nick Blue.
Harding was then caught offside in a promising move, before Cray led on 25 minutes. Jerome Frederico came through a 50-50 challenge with Harvey Sparks and raced forward to pull the ball back to Hudson, who fired home at the back post.
Horsham responded as an O’Toole header was saved by Blue, but Pelling had to then race off his line to deny Bradley Pritchard.
In the second half, Sean Roberts sliced an attempt over the bar after a free kick, before the Hornets almost levelled on 54 minutes when a Harding cross hit Lavery on the heels and needed a sharp save from Blue.
Taylor extended the hosts’ advantage from the penalty spot on 57 minutes when Dylan Merchant’s scuffed clearance saw Joe Shelley’s attempt to get the ball away but send Karl Dent sprawling in the area.
An O’Toole cross just lacked the final touch before Pearse was shown a red card for a crunching challenge on Jerome Frederico.
Horsham had a good spell after that and had penalty appeals for handball waved away as they failed to find a breakthrough and Cray moved to within three wins of claiming the title.Di Paola added: “They (Cray) are the most professional set-up I have seen at this level. They managed the ref well and game well. They have got experience, ability and quality in abundance.”
Horsham: Pelling, Hyde (Metcalf 33), Shelley, Merchant, Sparks, Hayward, Brivio (Richardson-Brown 64), Pearse, Harding, Lavery (Smith 74), O’Toole.