A number of factors make the entire harness racing trotting sector particularly vulnerable to economic fluctuations.
This story first appeared April 5 in the Helsinki Times by Minttu-Maaria Partanen; Aleksi Teivainen and Marianne Pykäläinen.
Breeding numbers have already tumbled below the levels of the 1990s recession as the economic down-turn continues to pummel the Finnish trotting sector. The lingering economic uncertainty has also reduced betting on harness racing and the number of races organised in the country.
In particular, the financial standing of regional trotting tracks has eroded.
"Economic fluctuations affect the trotting sector. That has always been the case," reminds Pekka Soini, the managing director at the Finnish Trotting and Breeding Association (Hippos).
Yet, since 2008 virtually every indicator of the trotting sector has taken a tumble due to the economic situation. The number of races organised has declined, as has the number of active racehorses and drivers. Similarly, the number of privately-owned racehorses has fallen by over 20 per cent over the said six-year period.
"The trotting sector relies on private ownership. For most, however, owning a racehorse is a hobby. During tough times, they will cut back on it," explains Soini.
Regardless, the managing director is not particularly concerned. "The changes are part of typical economic fluctuations. We must adapt to the situation."
Meanwhile, the breeding of thoroughbred mares has fallen sharply – by over 35 per cent – and already threatens the sustainability of breeding activities in Finland. Last year, only 1,897 mares were bred – fewer than during the worst year of the 1990s recession."We are still in a remediable situation. If the breeding numbers continue to decline in the years to come, breeding activities in Finland will not recover without special support measures," underlines Minna Mäenpää, the director of breeding at Hippos.
For the indigenous Finnhorse, the situation is even more precarious. Last year, the number of Finnhorse mares bred fell below the nadir reached in the depths of the 1990s recession. Roughly 80 per cent of the Finnhorse population are racehorses.
"I'm extremely concerned about the situation of the Finnhorse. It is a breed that does not exist elsewhere. You cannot compensate for the decline by importing. Domestic breeding therefore determines the future of the breed," highlights Mäenpää.
Betting on harness racing, however, has not fallen as steeply as the other indicators, only by roughly eight per cent from the peak year of 2008. Fintoto, the body responsible for developing horse betting operations, is nonetheless keeping a close watch on the entire sector, managing director Markku Breider says.
"Without horses, there won't be a single trotting race. The footing of domestic betting operations will erode, if no horses take part in the races," he explains.
"Last year was okay, but the start of this year has been below par. The sums used on betting have decreased," Breider adds.
Studies show that 80 per cent of the people who bet on harness racing are middle or working class-men, who have been hit particularly by the recent belt-tightening efforts and structural changes. As a result, the financial standing of some regional trotting tracks has deteriorated rapidly.
"As revenue from betting falls, the revenue of the tracks falls. With the tracks still forking out the same prizes, it's obvious that the situation has exacerbated," says Sanna Heino, the managing director of Hevostalous Oy, which manages the finances of the major trotting tracks in Finland.
Fintoto decided in February to temporarily lift the minimum prize requirements of daily trotting races, allowing trotting tracks to determine their purses independently. "That was the fastest way to alleviate the financial situation of tracks in dire straits," Breider says.
Hippos, in turn, is set to review the structures of the entire trotting sector this spring in a bid to identify possible savings targets. Soini promises that the association will do its utmost to avoid the closures of trotting tracks.
"Do we need to have over 20 separate organisations responsible for the management of the trotting tracks? What tracks organise races in the winter, what in the summer?" he speculates.