On the heels of his first million-dollar season, veteran trainer Mark Etsell can add another first to his resume at the 2022 O'Brien Awards courtesy stable star Adare Castle.
The 2021 season was a career year for Etsell as he posted numbers that were on par with his previous two seasons combined, and he was selected as an O'Brien Award finalist for the first time. That was not enough for the Rockwood, Ont. resident, clearly, given that he broke through a new threshold in the 2022 season with his stable accruing more than $1.06 million in purse earnings.
"I never really thought of it until partway through the season, I thought, 'Hey, I could crack a million this year.' It was never really on the list because I never thought I had enough horses racing to reach that goal," Etsell told Trot Insider. "We don't have a big stable. Such a huge number...it really wasn't on the radar. It's nice to see it happen."
To go along with 27 trips to the winner's circle, Etsell had 18 seconds and 21 thirds. Etsell had great success in the 2022 season and his stable mustered top three finishes in the Ontario Sires Stakes (OSS) and in many top races including the Elegantimage, Simcoe, Casual Breeze and the OSS Super Final. His brightest star: Adare Castle.
After being an O'Brien Award finalist as a freshman, trotting filly Adare Castle is back for a second chance at the hardware following a dominating sophomore campaign. In the 2022 season, the daughter of Muscle Mass-Pacific Edge was a winner of seven races and, along with four seconds, the filly accumulated $668,654 in purse earnings in 13 starts.
"The big thing is, you never know how they're going to come back after two," said Etsell, who's in search of his first O'Brien Award as a trainer. "I was more than happy with the way that she came back. That's the easiest way to say it."
With a horse like Adare Castle in a season like she had as a sophomore, it can be a challenge to pinpoint one highlight for the year. Etsell says that each win was special in its own way, but in his opinion, it was the start that didn't result in a victory that was the highlight for him.
"Although we didn't win, her effort in the Elegantimage...finishing second in there was as good as performance as one could ask for. I was against the Grand Circuit competition, she had a tough post and I thought she raced pretty good. I was impressed with her."
Along with the second-place finish in the Elegantimage, Adare Castle was first in both the SBOA elimination and final, first in four OSS Gold Series divisions with a second in one Gold Series division and a second in the OSS Super Final, first in the Casual Breeze, and second in the Simcoe.
In 22 lifetime starts, the mare has only been out of the money just once. In 20 starts, she was either first or second. Etsell attributes her competitive edge to her personality.
"I think she's honest. She's very consistent. She was the same every week. And she likes to race."
Etsell acknowledged that the success in his stable behind the scenes does not come from one single source, rather a team effort in which keeps horses like Adare Castle consistent.
"The biggest thing in our barn is that we don't have anybody that looks after one specific horse. In general and within reason, we kind of switch them around. I like it that way for a couple reasons. One is that you get different eyes on a horse. Sometimes things get noticed that maybe would have got swept under. We have a wide variety of eyes that look at any given horse on any given day. I think that's a definite help."
Along with his team in the stable, Etsell has a team of owners and partners that have been by his side for years. Mark Etsell, Bob Newton, Graham Hopkins and Peter Porter have all been together on the ride with Adare Castle as co-owners of the mare. When it comes to being on this voyage with a horse like this, Etsell had one word to describe it: awesome.
"They have stuck through thick and thin," said Etsell of the ownership group. "Bob Newton has been with me since the mid-80's. Graham, earlier we had horses together, for whatever reason things drifted apart and came back. Peter has been with us for the last probably four years. He loves the races. Since COVID is over, they are really more into it because they try not to miss any races. They just love having fun."
After being a part of the virtual setting as a finalist in 2021, Etsell says there is a bit of anticipation in going out for the live ceremony this year, but that he will have a group of supporters going along with him.
"I think it'll be pretty exciting. I'll enjoy it, there's no doubt about that. It's nice being with your peers and celebrating. We see each other all the time at the track, but nobody really gets to let their hair down and spend time with each other."
Standardbred Canada will present the 34th edition of the O'Brien Awards on Saturday, Feb. 4, 2023 at the Hilton Mississauga / Meadowvale Hotel.