Under Starters Orders

An image of a horse jumping a fence at a racecourse

David Mackinnon is the Regional Head of Operations for The Jockey Club in the south west region and is responsible for Cheltenham, Exeter, Warwick and Wincanton racecourses. He is responsible for race-day and conference and events operations, and the biggest challenge is delivering the Cheltenham Festival, one of the most iconic events in the sporting calendar, attracting 260,000 racegoers over the four days of The Festival.

David joined the Sports Grounds Safety Authority (SGSA) Board in 2016 and we talked to him about what attracted him to the SGSA and the big safety challenges in horseracing.

What attracted you to the SGSA?

The SGSA has an admirable history and the role it has played in transforming safety at sports grounds has been extraordinary and at times unsung.

The Jockey Club has safety at the heart of the organisation and as a sports fan, including football, I wanted to share my experiences in racing for the benefit of the wider sports grounds sector.

How’s it been so far on the board?

Being part of the SGSA board has been engaging and challenging. Much has improved in the last 25 years, sports grounds have been transformed but we cannot afford to be complacent about public safety. The world is changing and we see new threats and challenges and we must ensure the SGSA is fit for purpose for now and for all future challenges.

The organisation has embarked on an ambitious 5-year strategic plan which sees it committed to its regulatory role in football whilst becoming less of a burden on the tax payer and working with other sports and internationally to share its expertise in a more commercial way. It’s a pleasure to be involved in helping the SGSA executive deliver the plan.

In this changing context, the SGSA has reviewed its remit to ensure it is fit for purpose for the future and has launched a consultation on the wider definition of safety and how it oversees safety and licenses football.

What are the key safety challenges for horse racing?

The transient nature of crowds is a huge challenge. Racegoers are very transient during the day, moving from the parade ring to the stands to view the racing and perhaps visiting betting and bar outlets along the way. Racing is largely an outdoor sport so the unpredictable nature of the British weather influences this movement, as well as people’s propensity to be transient.

At The Festival we have the added challenge of managing 40,000 square metres of temporary structures which are built on one of the windiest sporting venues. In 2008, due to structural damage because of high winds, we had to postpone racing on the Wednesday whilst measures were ensured to guarantee safe occupancy for future days. This required a huge team effort to stage three days of racing into two.

Finally and hugely importantly counter-terrorism is a key focus for us, as it is with all sports grounds. It is an element of safety planning that cannot be ignored in this current climate and must be at the forefront of all operational planning.

Can you tell us about The Festival

The Festival has been running for many decades and it attracts a broad spectrum of people with a notable contingency from across the Irish Sea. Four days racing are staged with 7 races each day, with The Timico Gold Cup on the Friday being the race of The Festival. Such is the quality of sport on offer that the racing is often referred to as the ‘Olympics of jump racing’. The race meeting attracts over 260,000 racegoers.

What should every sports ground be doing to ensure safety is a priority?

There are many areas to consider however my key areas would be to ensure senior leaders have a focus on safety with a fixed item on the Board’s agenda; safety to have an allocated budget; Safety should be feature as part of future planning and development; Safety must be the number one priority, however, it must be balanced against ensuring customers have an enjoyable experience on the day.   

Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts.

The Cheltenham Festival is on 14th – 17th March, 2017.

Cheltenham is part of The Jockey Club which has been at the heart of British racing for more than 260 years. It has 15 courses including those at Aintree, Cheltenham, Epsom Downs and Newmarket and attendances of 1.95m in 2015.

It is governed by Royal Charter, every penny The Jockey Club makes it puts back into British racing.