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June 8, 2011

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Event safety – Horse sense

In the UK, more people attend horse-racing events than go to football matches. As its popularity continues to grow so, too, does the need to ensure that events are managed safely. Louise Smail provides an overview of the requirements of racing and what is being done to address them.

Every year, more than 5.5 million people go to the races and about 9000 races take place. There are 60 licensed racecourses in Great Britain, and two in Northern Ireland. The oldest is Chester Racecourse, which dates to the early 16th century. There are around 9500 active racehorse owners and, overall, some 50,000 people are involved in racehorse ownership. The British Horseracing Authority (BHA), which was formed in 2007 by the merger of two existing regulatory bodies, is the governing body of British horse racing (see panel).

The racecourses each have their own particular character and atmosphere. British racecourses stage two ‘codes’ of horseracing – flat and jumping – both of which take place all year round. Currently, there are 18 flat courses (including four all-weather racecourses), 24 jumps courses and 18 dual-purpose courses.

The large crowds, of all ages, attending races, coupled with the presence of highly-strung and valuable horses, mean safety is a prime consideration. Safety at racecourses is enforced by the local authority, which makes visits and inspections. The main relevant statutory instruments are the Safety at Sports Grounds Act 1975 (as amended) and the Fire Safety and Safety of Places of Sport Act 1987.

The Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 (HSWA) places duties on employers to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the safety and health of employees and others affected by the employer’s business, which, in relation to sports grounds, includes spectators. However, as the 1975 and 1987 Acts are designed specifically to protect spectators, there is generally no reason for the HSWA to be enforced in this respect, other than to deal with risks arising out of the activity taking place at the sports ground (such as risks to participants, or to safeguard employees). However, following a significant incident, perhaps involving spectator injury at a sports ground, action may be taken and/or charges brought under HSWA.

The main guidance on spectator safety at sports grounds is the Guide to Safety at Sports Grounds, (commonly known as the Green Guide),1 which was created following the Hillsborough football-ground disaster of 1989. Written by the Football Licensing Authority and commissioned by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport the Guide provides detailed guidance for ground managers, technical specialists such as architects and engineers, and all relevant authorities to help them assess how many spectators can be safely accommodated within a sports ground.2

The guide itself has no statutory force but many of its recommendations will be given force of law at individual grounds and courses by their inclusion in General Safety Certificates issued under the aforementioned 1975 and 1987 Acts.

However, the fact that the Green Guide’s origin is in stadia events poses a problem when it comes to racecourses, because the latter are quite different from the likes of football stadia. For example:

  • There are no opposing teams;
  • Individual races last between one and ten minutes and are run throughout the day, with intervals of at least half an hour, rather than constant action of 80-90 minutes with a break at half-time;
  • The crowd is transitory, usually following a predictable pattern of movement throughout the race day; and
  • The physical environment at racecourses is substantially different from stadia.

Consequently, in 2010, the Racecourse Association produced the RCA Guide to Safety at Racecourses.3 If a course considers that a particular provision within the Green Guide is not appropriate for their venue, the RCA guide advises on how to carry out a risk assessment to determine what alternative safety measures should be put in place. The RCA guide also includes sections on capacities, circulation and barriers, temporary demountable structures, and medical and first-aid provision.

Flow control

Crowd capacity and circulation are, arguably, the two areas in which racecourses differ the most from stadia. The nature of racing means that crowds are constantly moving between areas to watch the races, then on to other areas to place bets, eat and drink, etc. so a racing event is far more fluid than, say, a football game. Furthermore, the crowd movement will not be universal, as some race-goers will choose to remain either in their viewing position, or in some other location where they will retain a link (CCTV, radio commentary) to the racing.

It is the course management’s responsibility to assess the nature of the crowd, determine how much circulation space will be required, and provide adequate signage and stewarding to manage the crowd flows. The Green Guide recommends monitoring particular sections of a ground to ensure that individual portions do not become overcrowded but with racecourse crowds, it is almost impossible to keep account of the number of spectators in a particular part of an enclosure.

Generally, under normal circumstances, numbers on terracing are self-regulating – there will always be room for spectators to find a viewing position, even if it is on the lawn rather than the terrace – but there must be a reasonable cap on total attendance. CCTV monitoring and safety officials will be necessary (unless the numbers attending are markedly below capacity) to watch crowd build-up and spot any signs of overcrowding. This is particularly important where terraces can be both front and back-loaded.

While constant movement of the crowd can reduce the strain on viewing areas, e.g. seated/standing terraces and lawns, it can increase the strain on circulation routes. Crowds are particularly vulnerable while moving – crushing/ tripping-type injuries and more serious incidents have occurred where excited, or panic-stricken crowds have pushed into restricted areas, or on to persons who have fallen because of poor underfoot conditions.

At any event, it is normal to consider both ingress and egress (including emergency egress) requirements when considering circulation routes and spaces but, unlike many stadia-based events, entry rates at the start of a race meeting are not usually dependent on a set time, as the gates normally open well in advance of racing, and people come and go throughout the day.

Emergency evacuation times should comply with the Green Guide recommendations, e.g. stands and other buildings need to be cleared in two and a half minutes, while areas of low fire risk (as identified by the fire risk assessment) must be cleared in up to eight minutes. If a large-scale evacuation is necessary, e.g. from lawn areas to the centre of the course, then it may be considered reasonable to extend the overall evacuation time on the basis that the spectators are already in the open air and thus in lower-risk surroundings.

On race days, the number of people and organisations needed to run a successful and safe event increases dramatically. Race-day safety management is a team effort involving the racecourse staff, contractors and the emergency services. Each course, in liaison with the local authority, agrees the role to be played by outside organisations, such as the Fire Service, Police, Ambulance Service and companies that provide race-day safety stewards.

The Green Guide includes information on the duties of safety stewards – numbers required and training – and it is the racecourse’s responsibility to ensure that all stewards are correctly trained and competent to undertake their normal roles, and any duties required of them under the racecourse emergency plan. (The Racecourse Association is currently in the process of developing a version of the IOSH Working safely course for racecourses.)

All safety stewards must be briefed on each race day prior to the gates being opened to the public. The briefing should cover the duties of the safety stewards, relevant information regarding the crowd (e.g. VIP or disabled attendance), and any potential problems that may arise, such as children getting lost, or weather-related difficulties (high winds, flooding, etc.)

While emergencies at race meetings are fairly rare, all courses have plans in place in preparation for any incidents. In 1997, the 150th Grand National was postponed and the Aintree racecourse evacuated after an IRA bomb threat was made minutes before the race was due to start. Some 60,000 race-goers had to be evacuated from the course.
Temporary and demountable structures are also a big consideration on race days. These include not just spectator stands but also advertising hoardings, entrance archways and portals, art features, speaker towers, observation and camera platforms, lighting gantries and big screens. Although the Green Guide does contain some information in this respect, the Institution of Structural Engineers has produced comprehensive guidance.4 The essential point is that responsibility for spectator safety lies with the course management and cannot be delegated to the providers, or users of temporary facilities.5


Horse racing is a hugely popular sport and it is one of the objectives of the industry to promote the highest professional standards of health and safety for those who engage in and enjoying watching it. The considerations and preparations to be made on race days are considerable, and considerably different from those at other large-scale public events.

With the publication of the RCA’s Guide to Safety at Racecourses, course managers and staff, as well as enforcement authorities, now have the information they need to assess and improve safety measures at racecourses, ensuring the safe and successful delivery of meetings for everyone. 

1    The Guide to Safety at Sports Grounds (Green Guide) – 5th edition, published by The Stationery Office –
2    For previous articles in SHP on crowd management, see: Eves, D (2004): ‘Gang mastering’, SHP October 2004, Vol.22 No.10; and Drury, Dr J (2009): ‘Far from the madding crowd’, SHP April 2009, Vol.27 No.4 – features-content/full/far-from-the-madding-crowd
4    Institution of Structural Engineers (2007): Temporary demountable structures: Guidance on procurement, design and use (3rd ed) –
5    For a previous SHP article on safety of temporary and demountable structures, see: Thomas, P (2008): ‘Audiences on edge’, in SHP November 2008, Vol.26 No.11 –

Louise Smail is director of risk consultancy, Ortolan Ltd.

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13 years ago

The article concentrates on the movement and organisation of the attendees in a formal stadium set-up. It does not address the interaction of spectators, media and competitors together with the main group of users, the horses. Control and management of this interaction is crucial to the safe running of an event. Conflict can arise, eg in the parade ring, lead-in and lead-out ways and dismounting areas and enclosures as an incident between a media crew and bucking horse recently demonstrated.