Dead Heats in Horse Racing: What Happens & How Common Are They?

Close Horse Race Finish From Behind Leaders

In some sports, the idea of two teams or players sharing the spoils is simply part of the game. Take football, for instance; it is very common to see matches where both teams score the same number of goals and subsequently draw the match. For any sport involving a race though, not having an outright winner is much rarer.

It is something that is increasingly rare too thanks to sophisticated measuring equipment that can detect very small margins between participants. The speed and precision of modern-day cameras are seriously impressive and this very much applies to the ones used in horse racing. RaceTech, which has been the main technology provider to British Horse Racing since 1946, has cameras that can take up to 2,000 photos a second with the results available to view instantly.

Even though modern-day cameras can spot very fine differences, there are races in which no differences exist as two (or more) horses reach the finishing line at precisely the same time. When this happens, no amount of expensive technology can declare an outright winner because the evidence will simply show both horses getting their noses to the line at the very same moment.

What Is A Dead Heat?

Isolated Horses Racing Neck and NeckAlthough the term dead heat is most commonly used in horse racing, it can occur in other sports too. It is a general term used for any race in which two (or potentially more) participants cannot be separated because they reach the finish line at the exact same time. You can have a dead heat for any position but having a dead heat for let’s say eighth place in a horse race is rarely going to be of any significance. This is because it should not impact any bets or prize money allocation.

So, it is only really higher up the places where having a dead heat truly matters and it can happen at the very front of the field. You can find instances where the leading two horses reach the winning point at the same moment and the sophisticated camera technology shows them literally neck and neck. In theory, it is possible to have a dead heat between more than two horses but this is incredibly rare.

What Happens If There Is A Dead Heat?

Two Equal Coin StacksSome sports are not remotely satisfied with the idea that there could be more than one winner. In golf, if two players are tied after all the holes then they will enter a play-off to determine the victor. In snooker, should the scores be level after a frame then the black ball will be respotted and the first play to pot it will be the winner. Many decades ago, horse racing also used to work like this. Winning horses caught in a dead heat would have to race each other once again, usually a little later the same day, to determine the sole victor.

Support for making horses run two taxing races in one day quickly vanished though. For a short five-furlong sprint race it is perhaps not too bad but for a three-mile steeplechase, it hardly seemed kind nor just. With it not being practical to host a re-match at a future date, the only real solution was to call tied races as dead-heats. Any other tie-breaker, such as using the official rating, handicap weight or another variable would seem so arbitrary and unfair so this has never been used. As a result, if two (or more) horses finish in joint first place, they are both credited as winners. This ends up having a few implications both for connections of the winning horses and for those who’ve bet on either horse.

Prize Money

For every horse race there is a fixed amount of prize money handed to connections of the highest finishing horses. A fairly typical example would see first place take around half the total prize pot with second place claiming around a quarter. In the event of a two-horse dead heat, the prize money for first and second is combined then shared equally between the two winning horses. This means there is a completely equal payout for each of the winners, regardless of all other factors such as their odds. The odds are important however when calculating the impact a dead heat has on punters because, as you will see below, it does impact their payout.

How Does A Dead Heat Impact A Winning Bet?

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With a dead heat, bookies are obligated to pay out on all winnings horses no matter if there are two or three of them. This would normally make any dead heats extremely costly as the bookies could easily end up handing out twice as much cash. Quite understandably though, this does not happen as the rules are altered for any race ending with more than one winner. This is not something exclusive to horse racing either. If you were to put money on the Premier League Golden Boot, for instance, and the award ends up shared three ways, your payout would be cut by a third.

In a two-way dead heat horse race, what happens with your bet is that half of the stake is deemed as a winner and half the stake is deemed as a loser. This is a reasonable approach given that you effectively backed one of two winners. In the extreme event when there is a three-way tie, one-third of your stake would be a ‘winner’ and two-thirds a ‘loser’.

So, imagine for a moment you put a £5 on a horse at 10/1 who finishes at the very same time as the 2/1 favourite. Rather than receiving £55 back as you would normally (£5 x 10/1 = £50 plus your original £5 stake), you would get £27.50 (£2.50 x 10/1 + £2.50 stake) instead.

Each Way Bets

As you can see, the calculation here is very simple. For the most common two-way split you are just cutting your initial expected winnings in half. Things become slightly trickier if you place an each way bet so let us run through another example. Imagine that you place a £5 each way bet (£10 total stake) on a horse at 8/1. Each way terms for the race are that a top-two finish pays out at 1/4 odds. In the event of a two-way dead heat, the ‘win’ portion of your bet would be split into a half winner/half loser as in the example above. The ‘place’ part of the bet would stay entirely unimpacted though.

Had your selected horse won by a clear margin, you would have got back £60 (win: £5 x 8/1 = £40 plus £5 stake; place: £5 x 2/1 = £10 plus £5 stake). With the dead heat though the calculation ends up being: win: £2.50 x 8/1 = £20 plus £2.50 stake; place: £5 x 2/1 = £10 + £5 stake, meaning that your total return is £37.50.

It is also possible for the place part of your bet to be modified in the event of a dead heat too though. Say you backed a horse each way and the place terms covered the top three places and 1/5 of the odds. If your selected horse ended up ‘sharing’ third place with another horse, only half of your ‘place’ bet would be considered a winner. This would subsequently half your returns and most likely see you given very little money back as you would be effectively paid out at 1/10 odds rather than 1/5 (though it would be your stake that is reduced rather than the odds). So a £5 each way bet at 10/1 (which would cost you £10 in total) would end up being a £2.50 bet at 2/1 in this scenario. Hence you would get a return of £7.50 (£5 profit plus the £2.50 stake as the £5.00 stake on the win part of the bet would have lost anyway).

How Common Are Dead Heats?

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A dead heat involving two runners is not something you are very likely to see on any given day of horse racing. If you are a very regular racecourse visitor though, there is a fair chance you are likely to witness a dead heat at some point. While generally speaking they are quite rare, they are a long way from a ‘once in a blue moon’ type of event. Even when looking at more significant races, you can find several examples of dead heats within the last decade or two. The 2021 edition of the Fighting Fifth Hurdle, for example, saw Epatante and Not So Sleepy share victory. Moving further north and the 2018 renewal of the super-competitive Ayr Gold Cup had a dead heat for first place involving Baron Bolt and Son of Rest. Four years earlier, at York Racecourse, Clever Cookie and Ralston Road could not be separated in the Grand Cup.

These examples might be a few years apart but that is only because we have focussed on higher-class events. If you were to look at lower-prestige races then finding examples becomes quite an easy task. In February 2022 there was a dead heat at Wolverhampton, October 2021 saw dead heats at Kempton and Nottingham, in August 2021 there was yet another at Ripon and Brighton witnessed one just two months earlier. Additionally, dead-heats are hardly restricted to British racing either as you can find examples across the world whether it be Japan, America or France.

Triple Dead Heats

While two-way ties are not incredibly uncommon, advancements in modern camera technology have almost made three-way ties a thing of the past. The emphasis is on ‘almost’ here though as these remarkable finishes can still occur, only you see them extremely infrequently. Known as a triple dead heat, there was one as recently as 2014 at Evangeline Downs in Louisiana. This was just the sixth three-way tie there had been in American racing since 1990 and the first since 1997. That said, an American harness racing course, The Meadows, did produce a triple-dead-heat between TSM Goldenridge, Serious Damage and Teen Elvis in 2009.

Given the number of reasonably recent examples in America, it is somewhat curious that Britain has not had any triple dead heats since the introduction of the photo-finish camera in 1947. Prior to this, triple dead heats were spotted now and again and there were even three quadruple dead heats, coming in 1808 (Bogside), 1851 (The Hoo) and 1855 (Newmarket), but these were almost certainly due to inaccuracies caused by judging races with the naked eye. The most famous of these historic dead heats though is undoubtedly the 1857 running of the Cesarewitch Handicap that saw three horses tie for the still-revered contest. The three joint victorious horses had to compete in a run-off which saw a horse named Prioress prevail.

How Is A Dead Heat Recorded?

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Whenever there is a dead heat in a race, both horses will be awarded the shared position as though they had claimed it outright. The example below, taken from the 2021 Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle shows that both Not So Sleepy and Epatante had an official finishing position of first. Just because there is a tie though, this does not mean Sceau Royal was bumped up to second, so dead heats do not have any impact on places elsewhere in the field. Racing results will always list the distance gaps between horses e.g., 1½ (one and a half lengths) or nk (neck) but for a dead heat the abbreviation is simply ‘dht’.

Dead Heat Result Example

Here the Racing Post opted to show Not So Sleepy first but you can find other sites that listed Epatante at the very top instead. Ultimately it does not matter and there is no universal rule for which horse should appear first in the event of a dead heat. The final thing to mention is that on the form of each horse, the result will simply show as a ‘1’ following a dead heat win. There will be no special abbreviation following it so as far as the form guide is considered, a shared win is just as good as an outright win.