Ever since I was little, I have been fascinated with horses. I owe my love of horses to my grandfather, who was the biggest horse racing fanatic you could ever wish to meet. Before his passing a couple of years ago, we used to regularly go and watch the big horse racing events in the UK and Ireland together such as the Grand National and the Cheltenham Gold Cup. We were planning a trip to Finland because we know how much they love horse racing, but he unfortunately passed away before we could make it there. However, to honour his memory, I decided to take the trip myself. Here is my story.
How Horse Racing Started in Finland
Horse racing in the wonderful country of Finland came about from the fun hobby of racing home from church and was particularly popular among farmers. The first organised horse race took place in 1817 in Turku, but as agriculture in Finland started to become more mechanised, the need for farm horses decreased and harness racing declined too. Come the start of the 1960s, the number of races across Finland had dropped by 50%.
However, things started to pick up again in the 1960s and harness racing was promoted as a new type of recreation for those in the city. Old racetracks were renovated, and new ones were built, while the importation of trotter breeds added a new twist to events – before only Finnhorses could be raced. Therefore, harness racing, which was previously seen as a farmer’s hobby became more professional and started to attract more attention.
There was Parimutuel betting, which we call a Tote in the UK, and this obviously led to increase in interest in harness racing. The popularity continued to grow and still does to this day, to the extent that horse races are held every day throughout Finland apart from on Christmas Day. It attracts 800,000 spectators every year, which makes it the second most watched sport in Finland.
A Big Betting Culture in Finland
There is one thing I learnt while I was in Finland, and that is that Finns love to gamble, whether it is on sports or at an online casino, they do not care. I remember speaking to a Finn at one of the races I attended while there and I asked him if he was a betting man. He laughed and said that in Finland it is safe to assume that anyone you speak to likes to gamble. So, I asked him what he likes to gamble on, and he simply replied: “Whatever I can.”
He went on to tell me that he won €500 that day with bets that he had placed using money that he had won gambling at an online casino. His secret tip turned out to be a specialist website called Netti Casino – it is the site that he uses to find all the best online casinos for Finnish players. They have a team of experts that analyse all best online casinos and provide guides for the best casino games and payment options.
He told me that he was off to try and win some more money and disappeared into the crowd. I often wonder whether he had any more success that day or whether he went on to lose all his profit.
Why My Grandad and I Wanted to Go to Finland
Being from the United Kingdom, my grandfather and I know quite a bit when it comes to thoroughbred racing. However, we had heard that there is no gallop racing culture in Finland and that harness racing is all the rage. Now, in Britain, harness racing is not popular at all, so we did not know an awful lot about it as a sport. Therefore, we thought that it would be a great idea to go learn more about it while checking out the beautiful scenery of a Scandinavian country.
As I mentioned above, nearly 800,000 Finns turn out at harness racing events every year. If you are just hearing about harness racing now, then there is a good chance that you are not too sure what it is. Well, with harness racing, instead of a jockey sitting on the back of a horse like you see in thoroughbred races in countries such as the UK, United States, France, and Australia, you will see him sitting in a two-wheeled cart that is attached to the back of the horse.
There are no fewer than 43 harness racing tracks in Finland with some of them being decades old. This means that when you are in Finland, you are never that far away from a harness racing track. The ones that I paid a visit to during my stay in Finland all had fantastic facilities, meaning that a fun day out could be had by all.
Finns are known for their relaxed and laid-back nature, which is probably one of the main reasons why harness racing has become as popular as it is. Harness races are much more leisurely than your standard thoroughbred races, but it must be said that there are quite a few more tactics involved.
Where Did I Go to Watch Harness Racing in Finland?
If you are going to Finland with the main purpose of experiencing some harness racing, then there is one venue that you have to visit and that is Vermo. This is the country’s main harness racing venue and it opened in 1977. It can be found in Leppävaara, which is in the district of Espoo, but it is actually regarded by many to be the main harness racing track in Helsinki. When I found this out, it actually reminded me of the dispute us Londoners have about whether Dagenham should be classified as London or Essex. It does not really matter either way, but us humans do like to have debates about trivial matters.
The biggest race that takes place at Vermo is Finlandia-Ajo. The first race, which is raced over 1,609 meters, took place back in 1980 and it has been happening every year since (apart from 2020 due to the pandemic). The winner of this event walks away with hundreds of thousands of Euros as well as a huge boost in his harness racing reputation. I guess you could say that it is the equivalent of someone in the United Kingdom winning the Grand National or the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
It just so happens that I was lucky enough to be visiting Finland in 2019 when this race was due to be run, so I naturally made sure that I was there for it. The weather was absolutely freezing, but I was not about to let a bit of cold weather ruin my day out. There was a horse running in the big race called Readly Express and it reminded me of my grandad because my gran used to call him Mr. Express because of how quick he used to get ready when it was time to go to a horse racing event. Any other time he would take an age to get ready, especially if it was to go and help her with some shopping. So, in memory of my grandad, I decided to bet on Readly Express to win and he only went and won it. I am not much of a spiritual guy, but I believe he was looking over me that day.
I then travelled 2 and a half hours north to the beautiful town of Mikkeli. This town is popular for tourists because there are many lakes, forests, and wildlife to see. One of the reasons why I travelled to Mikkeli is because I heard how beautiful a town it is, but the main reason was because I had been told that the St Michel Ravit harness racing event is the biggest event that happens in the town and that it was happening during my stay in Finland. The venue was jam-packed, and the atmosphere was electric, but I did not manage to win any of the bets I placed – although that did not put a dampener on my day out.
An Experience That I Will Cherish Forever
My time in Finland is something I will always remember. If you love horse racing as much as me, then I really do recommend a trip to Finland, although the horse racing is different to what you are probably used to. The people are very friendly and easy to chat with, especially after you tell them how much of a horse racing fan you are. I will cherish the memories of Finland forever, but I do have one regret and that is that my beloved grandad was not there to enjoy them with me.