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What Is a "Dead Heat"?

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  • Written By: Laura Metz
  • Edited By: Allegra J. Lingo
  • Last Modified Date: 02 December 2016
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The phrase “dead heat” is an English idiom for a competition in which two or more contestants tie. It originated in horse racing, but has been used since the late 1900s to refer to a draw in any type of race. Multiple books and movies have used the saying as a title.

"Dead heat" is a technical term originating in tournaments where the same horses would race multiple times. In horse racing, a heat is the term for one race of any length. The first horse to win a certain number of heats is declared winner for many competitions. For most of these, ties do not count, so any race that ended in a tie was called a dead heat.

A similar racing term is photo finish. Contestants are sometimes so close that the naked eye cannot tell who crossed the finish line first, so racetrack owners take pictures at the finish line to see who crossed it first. Races that are too close to tell without the picture are called photo finishes, because the photograph determines who finished first.

As technology develops faster cameras and more precise sensors, ties have become exceedingly rare. If it is still impossible to tell, even with pictures, then the race is officially a dead heat. Occasionally, three horses will tie, resulting in a triple dead heat.

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Outside of the racing world, this phrase has come to mean a close competition of any sort. This type of dead heat can occur in foot racing, swimming matches, and biking competitions. In motorsports, an official tie is almost impossible because electronic transponders record each car’s finish by the thousandth of a second.

Close political races are also called dead heats sometimes, even though every tie for political office is eventually broken. In the 2000 run for U.S. president, George W. Bush and Al Gore were in a dead heat for president throughout the campaign. In the end, both candidates had approximately 48% of the popular vote, but Bush won by five electoral college votes.

In popular culture, many novelists and screenplay writers have borrowed the idiom for a title. Novels by that title include a 1984 mystery by Linda Barnes, a 1996 horror story by Del Stone Jr., a 2007 mystery by Dick Francis, and a 2008 political thriller by Joel C. Rosenberg. In addition, two films share the name “Dead Heat,” a 1988 zombie action movie starring Treat Williams and Joe Piscopo and a 2002 comedy action film starring Kiefer Sutherland.

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