Finland 2012: Finnish Coldblood Championship at Mikkeli
Unlike its more mountainous neighbors, Finland is a relatively flat country covered with endless birch forests and lakes. Henrikki Halme was my generous host and guide for a tour of Helsinki, lodging at his scenic farm, and teaching me about Finnish Coldblood trotters while attending their championship races in Mikkeli.
Tuomiokirkko Helsinki Architecture Uspenski Cathedral
Helsinki is a small and very congenial city with wide boulevards, open squares, and colorful Russian-influenced architecture that clearly resembles that of St. Petersburg. The close if often difficult relationship between Finland and Russia is demonstrated by the proximity of the 1830 Tuomiokirkko, a grand white Lutheran Church fronted by a statue of Alexander II of Russia, and the Russian Orthodox Uspenski Cathedral. Finland is a small country, and you are likely to see someone famous. On my first evening in Helsinki, the great NHL star Teemu Selanne dined at our restaurant.
Esplanade Park Café Kappeli Salmon Dinners
The Esplanade is a wide downtown boulevard with shopping, restaurants, and a central park. In the park, the Café Kappeli is a great place to have a drink and a pastry on a sunny summer afternoon. The waterfront is just off the Esplanade, with cruise ships, open air vendors for Finnish handicrafts and fresh fruit, and best of all outdoor restaurants serving dinners of grilled fresh salmon and vegetables by the edge of the water. A grilled salmon dinner on my final day in Finland was an experience to remember.
One of the most impressive attractions is the Suomenlinna, a fortress island in Helsinki Harbor (website here) that was constructed to protect the city against invaders, but instead had a complex history involving both Sweden and Russia. This island was a self-contained fortress, and now is a UNESCO heritage site preserving original buildings and presenting demonstrations of fortress life and functions.
Mannerheim Halme Family Memorial Vihti Cemetery
The Finns are rightfully proud of their military prowess in repelling a Russian invasion during the 1939 Winter War. Their great General and later President Carl Gustav Mannerheim is revered as a Finnish combination of George Washington and George Patton. We toured the Mannerheim Museum in Helsinki on the first day of my visit. Henrikki's family was involved in fighting the Red Army in 1918. His family members are buried in a church cemetery with Winter War veterans in the town of Vihti.
Halme Farm House Farm View
Henrikki's home is a sprawling farmhouse that has been in his family for generations. He was born on the farm. The walls in my guest bedroom were decorated with many photographs of his ancestors. From the rear of his home, the view of a lake and one of his pastures is absolutely amazing. His farmhouse has traditional Finnish furnishings, including large ceramic stoves that heat the home.
Mikkeli Mikkeli Racecourse Standardbred Race
We traveled to the town of Mikkeli to watch the Kunikuusravit, the championship races for Finnish Coldblood trotters. Thirty thousand spectators of all ages gathered at the racecourse in the birch forest at the edge of town. Race day was truly a family event. Young women monte riders brought their own fan clubs. My friends had a special interest in the accomplished race mare She Loves You (Love You - S J's Shad Roe) that finished second in her race that afternoon. Prominent political figures milled around the VIP area between the races, which were also broadcast on television.
Coldblood Erikasson Victory Coach Ride Celebration
Finnish Coldbloods are large pony-style horses with a bit of a working horse build. They aren't terribly fast, but they are very sturdy and determined. The Kunikuusravit was contested over three heats. The sentimental favorite was Erikasson, an older trotter that had won many races, but had never won the Kuninkuusravit. Although he did not win any of the heats, Erikasson was the most consistent performer and was declared the winner in his final year of eligibility. The winning trainer and driver were celebrated with a ride in an open horse drawn coach to the cheers of the crowd. That evening, we attended a Finn-Pop concert in the town stadium as a great ending to our Mikkeli trip.
Korpi Barn Korpi Home Eye See
Our final tours were of local trotting farms, including the Pekka Korpi home and training center. In Europe, wreaths awarded for major racing victories are hung as trophies on training barns. The Korpi barn was covered with them. His home was a traditional Finnish farmhouse with a metal roof. Among the horses training that day was Eye See, a Windsong's Legacy 4YO that has raced well in Europe. I spent my final evening in Helsinki with Anssi Suominen and his wife and daughter watching the races at Vermo Racetrack.
My thanks to Henrikki and Anssi for making my visit to Finland so enjoyable!