By Jeb Blount

RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - Australia's Tom Burton used a tense pre-start battle on Tuesday to snatch the gold medal from Croatia's Tonci Stipanovic who had led the Olympic Laser regatta for 10 straight tests before the final medal race.

Stipanovic, forced by Burton into an illegal bump with the Australian boat, had to take a penalty turn and finished ninth, ending up with silver rather than gold. Both Burton and Stipanovic had ensured themselves one of the top two podium spots on points before the medal race.

Bronze was won by New Zealand's Sam Meech, who managed a third in the medal race, just enough to kill off Brazilian Robert Scheidt's hopes of a record sixth sailing medal in six Olympic games.

Scheidt, 43 and Brazil's greatest Olympian, sailed one of the best races of his life to win the medal race but the nine-times Laser world champion's performance was not enough to slip past Meech in the overall points total.

As a result, Scheidt, one of only three sailors to win five Olympic sailing medals, missed his first podium in a 20-year Olympic career that began in 1996 in Atlanta.

(Editing by Clare Fallon)