Ever since I was a small boy, I have been enamored by horses. I owe this to my grandad, who was the world’s biggest horse racing fan. I am not exaggerating when I say that you would not have found a bigger horse racing fan than him. Before he passed away a few years ago, we would often go and watch some of the biggest racing events in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, such as the Cheltenham Gold Cup and the Grand National. We had a trip to Finland planned because we know how much they all love their horse racing, but he died before we managed to go. However, in honour of his memory, I still took the trip, and this is my story.
How Did Horse Racing Begin in Finland?
Horse racing in Finland is something that came about from the hobby of racing home after mass and this was something that was really popular among the farmers. The first horse race in Finland was run in 1817 in Turku, but then agriculture in Finland started to become more machine-based, so the need for horses decreased and so did harness racing. When the 1960s rolled around, the number of races in Finland had dropped by almost 50%.
However, things soon started to pick up and harness racing was promoted by the government as a new kind of recreation for city dwellers. The country’s old racecourses were renovated, and some new ones were constructed, while trotter breed importation added a twist to events – it used to be only Finnhorses that could be raced. Thus, harness racing, which is known as “ravit” in Finnish, was now being seen as a more professional activity and not just something that farmers did as a hobby. As a result, it is getting more attention.
Soon Parimutuel betting started, which is known as a Tote in the United Kingdom, and this led to even more interest in harness racing. The popularity increased even more, and nowadays horse races are run in Finland on every day of the year apart from Christmas Day. It is now a sport that attracts close to a million spectators each year, making it the second biggest spectator sport in the country.
A Huge Betting Culture Throughout Finland
There is something that became obvious to me when I was in Finland, and this is that the Finnish love to do some gambling, whether that is betting on sports such as ravit or playing their favourite casino games, they are not too picky. I actually remember speaking to a lovely Finnish guy at one race that I attended, and I asked him if he liked to gamble. He gave me a big toothy grin and told me that when you are in Finland you might as well assume that whoever you are speaking to likes to gamble. I asked him out of curiosity what it is that he enjoys gambling on, and he told me, “Whatever is available”.
He went on to inform me that he has won €600 that day betting on the trotting and that this was a lean day for him. He then told me that he was off to try and win some more money, gave me a big handshake, and disappeared into the throng of people. I do often wonder if he went on to have more success on that day or whether he lost the €600 that he had made. If I were in his shoes, I would have not risked losing the profit I had made for that day.
Why We Wanted to Visit Finland
Being British, me and my grandad had a lot of knowledge when it came down to thoroughbred racing. However, we heard that there was not much of a galloping culture throughout Finland and that they all love harness racing. Now, harness racing is not popular in the United Kingdom at all, so we knew little about it. Therefore, we thought it would be an awesome idea to go to Finland to learn all about it while also experiencing some stunning Scandinavian scenery.
As mentioned earlier, close to a million Finns go and watch harness racing each year. If this is the first time that you are hearing about this sport, then you probably have no idea what it is exactly. Well, in harness racing you will have the jockey sitting in a two-wheeled cart that the horse is pulling and not on his back like in thoroughbred racing in places such as the United States, UK, Australia, and France.
There are 43 harness racecourses in the country, with many of them being more than a few decades old. When you are visiting Finland, you can be sure that you are never that far from a harness racing venue. The ones that I paid a visit to while in Finland all came with great facilities, meaning that every day was a fun one.
The Finns are known for having a laid-back and relaxed nature, which is one of the reasons why harness racing is so popular now. Harness races are a lot more leisurely than your usual thoroughbred race, but there are many more tactics involved.
Where Did I Watch Harness Racing?
If you are taking a trip to Finland with the main reason being to experience their harness racing, then there is one particular track that you have to pay a visit to, and this is Vermo. This track, which opened in 1977, is the Finland’s main harness racing track. It is located in Leppävaara, in the Espoo district, but there are many who say that it is in Helsinki. This actually reminded me of a dispute that Londoners have about whether Dagenham is in London or Essex. Either way, it does not matter, but we all know that us humans love debating trivial matters.
The biggest harness race that happens at Vermo is called the Finlandia-Ajo. This race, which is is run over 1,609 metres, was first run in 1980, and it has taken place each year since. The winner of this prestigious event gets their hands on a prize of hundreds of thousands if Euros and a huge increase in their reputation in the sport. This is probably the equivalent to a thoroughbred jockey winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup or the Grand National.
I made sure that I was in Finland when this big race was due to take place. The weather was really cold on the day, but I was never going to let the cold ruin my day. There was a horse taking part that was called Ready Express, and this reminded me of my grandad as my granny’s nickname for him was Mr. Express because he was so quick at getting ready when we were going to horse racing events. When it came to anything else, especially helping her with shopping, he would take ages to get ready. Therefore, in loving memory of him, I bet on Ready Express to win and he did. I am not a religious person, but I think he might have been looking down on me that day.
I then traveled three hours north to Finland’s picturesque town called Mikkeli. This town has become very popular for tourists because there are plenty of forests, lakes, and different wildlife to see. One reason why I paid this town a visit was because I heard how stunning it was, but the main reason I wanted to go was because the St. Michel ravit event was happening their during my stay. The racetrack was packed and the atmosphere was so electric that I am sure the hair on my body was standing on end. I placed a few bets, but I did not win any – that did not dampen my day though.
An Experience I Will Remember
My trip to Finland is something I will never forget. If you are a huge horse racing fan, then I recommend that you take a trip to Finland as the horse racing scene is outstanding. The Finnish people are really friendly and easy to speak to, especially when they find out how much you love horse racing. I will always cherish my trip to Finland, but there is one big regret that I have, and this is that my grandad could not share it with me.