By Mitch Fenton
The Villiers Handicap, run at Randwick last Saturday week, saw one of the most exciting finishes in a feature race in some time. Queenslander’s Rags to Riches and Hey Elvis settled down to fight out the finish at the end of the 1600m event, but no sooner than they looked likely to run the quinella, Something Anything railed through and made a last ditch lunge at the duo. As they flashed past the post, it was impossible to separate the trio with the naked eye. On further inspection, the person with the final say in the matter, the judge, advised Something Anything had won the race by a nose from Hey Elvis, with Rags to Riches a short half head away in third. Many believed the first two could not be split and a dead-heat was the right way to go, but that’s history now.
The history of Australian racing across its three codes has been littered with many close finishes, but the thrilling Villiers finish brought back memories – for those old enough to remember – of the history making result in the Hotham Handicap on the 3rd of November 1956, which saw the first ever triple dead heat – following the inception of the photo finish method. Today the Hotham Handicap is known as the Saab Quality. It is run on Derby Day and gives runners a final chance to gain entry into the Melbourne Cup, which is run 72 hours later.
The big crowd on that day in 1956 gave vent to its excitement as the three desperately ridden horses went stride for stride to the winning post. After the finish an expectant hush fell over the huge Flemington crowd as the agonising wait began for the print to be sent down to the judge’s tower. Finally, after minutes of deliberation, a huge roar was heard as the official announcement came through that the race was in fact a triple dead heat, the first ever recorded in Australian turf history. The picture above shows Pandie Sun (Bill Williamson) on the rails, Ark Royal (Reg Heather) in the centre and Fighting Force (Jack Purtell) on the outside of the trio. The photo was printed in newspapers in Australia and all around the world, as people from the ranks of both racing followers, to non-racegoers, all marvelled at the historic print.
Since that famous day in 1956 there have been two more triple dead-heats recorded, both of which occurred in the 1980’s. In Townsville in June 1985 Angular, Apollo’s Flame and Plenty Of Spirit hit the line as one. Then at Stony Creek in Victoria in January 1987, the judge was again unable to separate three horses and Chester Field, Fast Seal and Mr Spectre all past the post simultaneously.
The most freakish finish however was arguably way back in 1897 in Toowoomba, Queensland. It was recorded that Comet, Blucher, Minster Belle and Lord Rosebery all dead-heated in the Shorts Handicap over 1200, but of course in those days all decisions where made by the judge with the naked eye, making it near impossible to separate a close finish. A “run-off” of this race – so that just one winner could be determined – was won by Comet from Blucher.
A triple dead heat was the judge’s result of the 1904 West Australian Derby in the pre-photo finish days when Keston, Culroy and Antaean all hit the line together. The trio all went around again later in the day, which would no doubt burr up a few animal right activists today and in the “run-off” finished in the aforesaid order.

But surely the prize for the most bizarre dead heat happened at the Northern Jockey Club in New South Wales way back on 12/8/1896. Three horses – Tom, Yellow Plush and Syndicate dead heated in a race, so back they went for a “run off”. You wouldn’t believe it, but in the “run off” Tom and Yellow Plush dead heated again, so back they went again for a second “run off”. On the second “run off”, Tom won by just a half head. I bet you they both slept well that night.