The Curious Case of the Dead Heat in Horse Racing

Channel Maker, outside, and Glorious Empire, inside, finished in a dead heat for the win in the Grade 2 Bowling Green Stakes on Saturday at Saratoga. (Adam Coglianese/NYRA)

On July 28 at Saratoga as the horses barreled toward the finish line in the Grade 2 Bowling Green Stakes, the crowd around me was going crazy. Longshot Irish-bred Glorious Empire had at least four lengths on the rest of the field, but Channel Maker was gaining on him fast. When they crossed the finish line, they were together, heads bobbing in alternating syncopation.

At first glance, it didn’t look like Channel Maker made it in time. Most of the crowd around me was frustrated, while a few who had Glorious Empire were cautiously optimistic. The “photo” sign lit up, and the race replay played over and over again in slow motion. Each time they played the replay I changed my mind about who won. So did the crowd, who, no matter which horse they had, went through the full range of human emotions in turn.

I didn’t have either of the horses — my pick ran next to last — but I was fully invested in the outcome of the photo finish, if only emotionally.

After an eternity of waiting, the result of the photo was posted. Dead heat. Everyone cheered, then, almost together on cue, hesitated. But does this bet win? Or what?

I may not have had either winner in that race, but lucky for those in my immediate vicinity, I knew the answer to this old chestnut.

How tracks pay off dead heats differs from state to state. But some things are fairly uniform. For example, almost everyone pays win and place bets the same. The win and place pools for each horse are combined, the track takes out its percentage, and then the pot is split into two pools, which are paid out to everyone holding win and place tickets on each horse. This means that if you bet on Glorious Empire, who had longer odds (22.50-1) and thus fewer people holding tickets, you got a much larger payout than those holding Channel Maker (5.80-1) bets, who split their pool with a larger number of people. The horse that finished behind the dead heat for first, in this case Sadler’s Joy, is considered the show horse and only paid on show tickets. That’s a bummer for anyone who bet Sadler’s Joy to place, since a philosophical argument can be made that he did, in fact, run second.

The exacta is considered to be the two horses in the dead heat, in either order of finish. So the exacta pool is split up between these two outcomes and paid off proportionally, so you’ll get more money if you held an exacta ticket with Glorious Empire on top, but it will be less than you’d have won if you didn’t have to share the pool with those who had Channel Maker on top. If you boxed it, you cash both tickets. So congratulations!

In the trifecta, both orders of the two dead heat finishers are paid out as first and second with trifecta rounded out with the show horse, so there are two winning trifecta payouts (Glorious Empire-Channel Maker-Sadler’s Joy and Channel Maker- Glorious Empire-Sadler’s Joy). Same applies to the superfecta, with the second runner-up, in this case Bigger Picture, considered to be fourth place.

For whatever weird reason, in New York the Pick 3 splits the pools into two and pays them proportionally to the winning tickets similar to how they pay win pools, meaning the tickets with Glorious Empire receive a larger share of the pot, but for the Pick 4 they split the pool evenly among all the tickets. So if you had a Pick 4 ticket with Glorious Empire, you got the same payout as someone holding Channel Maker, even though there were far more of those tickets. This rule is weird and has ruffled a lot of feathers over the years, most notably after the dead heat in the 2012 Travers Stakes between the 2.40-1 favorite Alpha and the 33.50-1 longshot Golden Ticket. To be fair, New York isn’t the only state that does this, and some states even do this for Pick 3s. The fact that New York doesn’t do it for Pick 3s means that it has to be possible to do something similar for Pick 4s, but for whatever reason they don’t.

All of this means that most people are left scratching their heads after a dead heat wondering what they win. And even after they see the results and payouts on the screen, sometimes they’re still scratching their heads all the way to the window to collect their money. They won, but it just doesn’t feel right for some reason. I can relate. That’s how I feel every time I lose.

newsletter sign-up

Stay up-to-date with the best from America's Best Racing!