Breeders’ Cup Fantastic Finishes: ‘Too Close to Call’ in Unforgettable Dead Heat

The thrilling finish in the 2003 John Deere Breeders’ Cup Turf, which produced the only dead heat in the history of the World Championships. (Breeders Cup archive)

In its 38 years, the Breeders’ Cup World Championships has produced many stretch duels that have become part of racing’s lore, from the very first Classic in 1984 to Tiznow’s back-to-back Classic wins in 2000 and 2001, and on through Blame’s defeat of Zenyatta in the 2010 Classic and Beholder’s valiant win over Songbird in the 2016 Distaff.

But there’s only been one dead heat finish in Breeders’ Cup history, and that came 19 years ago in a renewal of the Breeders’ Cup Turf that can commonly be found on the Top 10 list of all-time favorite races for fans old enough to remember it.

2003 John Deere Breeders’ Cup Turf

Date: Oct. 25, 2003

Venue: Santa Anita Park

1st: High Chaparral

1st: Johar

3rd: Falbrav

Payouts: $6.40 to win, $6.20 to place, $3.80 to show (High Chaparral) and 13.60 to win, $9 to place, 5.40 to show (Johar) ; $1 exacta High Chaparral-Johar paid $36.30, $1 exacta Johar-High Chaparral paid $44.40

Winning jockey (High Chaparral): Mick Kinane

Winning trainer (High Chaparral): Aidan O’Brien

Winning owners (High Chaparral): Michael Tabor and Susan Magnier

Winning breeder (High Chaparral): Sean Coughlin (Ire.)

Winning jockey (Johar): Alex Solis

Winning trainer (Johar): Richard Mandella

Winning owner-breeder (Johar): The Thoroughbred Corp. (Ky.)

The 20th Breeders’ Cup was held at Santa Anita Park under typical Southern California weather – sunny and dry – and one of the major draws heading into the World Championships was a renewal of the Turf, sponsored by John Deere, that brought together a stellar international cast.

Leading the field was High Chaparral, the defending Turf winner, who scored by 1 ¼ lengths at Arlington Park in 2002. The Irish-bred son of legendary sire Sadler’s Wells, owned by Coolmore-affiliated Michael Tabor and Susan Magnier and trained by that stable’s maestro Aidan O’Brien, had already been honored as a European champion for his 3-year-old season a year prior, when he also won both the English and Irish Derbys.

As it turned out, however, High Chaparral was only the fourth betting choice at post time, carrying 4.90-1 odds. British-bred Storming Home, the 2-1 favorite, had crossed the finish line first in the Aug. 16 Arlington Million but was disqualified to fourth after ducking out late and tossing jockey Gary Stevens in a horrific accident (somehow, Stevens, who suffered a collapsed lung, was healthy and back in the saddle to ride Storming Home to a win in the Clement Hirsch Stakes six weeks later). Irish-bred Sulamani, elevated to first in the Million, had won the French Derby in 2002, the lucrative Dubai Sheema Classic earlier in ’03, and the Turf Classic at Belmont Park heading into the Breeders’ Cup, and was thusly sent off at 3.10-1 odds. And Falbrav, another Irish-bred who began his career racing in Italy before going worldwide, had won the prestigious Japan Cup in 2002 as a 4-year-old and taken four Group 1 races in Europe at age 5 prior to his trip stateside – yet still went off as an overlaid 3.60-1.

Such was the quality of the ’03 Turf field that U.S.-based Grade 1 winners Johar and The Tin Man, both trained by Richard Mandella, were relegated to middle-tier longshots by the betting public, going off at nearly identical 14.20-1 and 14.30-1 odds, respectively. The former was a 4-year-old son of Gone West bred in Kentucky and owned by The Thoroughbred Corp., a Saudi Arabian group founded by Prince Ahmed Salman, who died in July 2002 shortly after winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes with War Emblem. Johar had blossomed during 2002-’03 into a top California-based grass horse, winning the Grade 1 Hollywood Derby and two Grade 2 races and finishing second by a half-length to Storming Home in the Clement Hirsch prior to his Breeders’ Cup start. His trainer had already visited the Santa Anita winner’s circle twice on the card, taking the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies with Halfbridled and the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile with Action This Day. As it turned out, even greater things were imminent.

Balto Star, winner of the Arkansas Derby on dirt in 2001 and the United Nations Stakes on turf in 2003, set the early pace with The Tin Man stalking in second, High Chaparral and Falbrav close behind, and Johar last in the nine-horse field. The real running kicked in, as it often does in long-distance turf races, as the field entered the final turn. The Tin Man assumed the lead and Falbrav and High Chaparral quickened in the chase, while Storming Home and Sulamani moved up and Johar started his rally under Alex Solis. When the field wheeled into the homestretch, Falbrav assumed a brief lead, but he was soon joined by High Chaparral to his outside – and then Johar made an explosive stretch run outside of that pair. Tom Durkin’s classic race call captured all of the excitement as the trio hit the finish in a line, with High Chaparral and Johar slightly ahead and the winner between them anyone’s guess.

Anticipation was on full blast while the stewards examined the photo finish, High Chaparral’s jockey Mick Kinane telling BloodHorse, “I thought the judge was on a tea break, but I knew it was very close. And then the longer it went, well I said, ‘Half a loaf is better than no fish, you know.’ ”

Indeed it was, as the photo showed no space between High Chaparral and Johar, and only a head separating that pair and a dead-game Falbrav who had to settle for third.

“I’m having a very good day,” Mandella joked after the Turf, his third Breeders’ Cup win on the day … but as it turned out, he was not quite done. Pleasantly Perfect won the final Breeders’ Cup race roughly 45 minutes later, upsetting Medaglia d’Oro by 1 ½ lengths in the Classic, to give Mandella a record four Breeders’ Cup wins in a single event.

This article was originally published on Sept. 25, 2020, and has been updated.

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