One of Ontario's most respected horsemen for many decades, Mark Etsell has reached a new plateau as a finalist for one of Canadian's harness racing's most prestigious individual titles — the O'Brien Award of Horsemanship.
A breakout year for the Rockwood, Ont. resident landed him as an individual finalist for Horsemanship against Luc Blais. Etsell trained 21 winners and horses to more than $769,000 in earnings in 2021. He has a long-standing reputation for developing young stakes horses that compete in the Ontario Sires Stakes (OSS) program and this year he won an OSS Super Final with freshman filly and stable star Adare Castle, who earned more than $486,000 and scored seven wins in nine starts.
Etsell also enjoyed a victory in the 2021 Balanced Image Trot at Hanover Raceway with Sea Can.
"2021 was an outstanding year for a small stable like ours," Etsell told Trot Insider. "Four of our five two-year-olds qualified, and three of those were stake winners. Our three-year-olds didn’t perform as I anticipated but still contributed with some decent numbers. Good horses make you look good."
The modest horseman, who has campaigned top provincial performers the likes of Ghost Of Sweepall, Tantallon Wonder, Fleur Collins, Blossom Seelster, Major Muscle and Mister Muscle, handled the compliment on his career-best season by deflecting the credit to his team and the horses.
"Our success came from a lot of hard work by my staff and this year our horses stayed healthy, and that’s a big bonus racing young horses," stated Etsell. "And patience, young horses require a lot of that as they don’t always cooperate with your schedule."
While discussing his accomplishments with a self-effacing demeanor, no one but Mark Etsell can take credit for finding the $10,000 diamond in the rough named Adare Castle. The daughter of Muscle Mass won seven of nine races and more than $486,000 in her rookie season for Etsell and co-owners Robert Newton of Walkerton, Graham Hopkins of Chesley and Peter Porter of Port Dover, Ont. Her stakes wins included five Ontario Sires Stakes events highlighted by a victory in the season ending OSS Super Final, a division of the Champlain Stakes and an elimination of the Peaceful Way Stakes.
These races rank among the highlights of Etsell's stellar season, but just as rewarding to him was delivering such thrilling highlights to his longstanding associates.
"The OSS Super Final win with Adare Castle was awesome, but seeing the smiles on the faces of my partners and their families was very satisfying."
The nod as a finalist for horsemanship came as a shock to the veteran conditioner, but hearing that Adare Castle also made the list of finalists along with millionaire Venerable lined up with his assessment of the division.
"I was surprised when I was notified about the O’Brien Award; I wasn’t expecting that at all and I am very honoured to be nominated," said Etsell. "I felt Adare Castle deserved the nomination based on her performance and what she did for the OSS program. That said, she’s in tough against the outstanding Venerable who had an awesome season — one that every owner dreams about."
Someone more accustomed to a driving suit than a tuxedo, Etsell has no qualms about the virtual setting for this year's gala although he admits that "it would have been nice for everyone to attend a great social event like this." He'll tune in on Sunday, Feb. 6, gather with a few friends and plans to enjoy the evening.
There are two finalists in each O'Brien Awards category, which includes 12 divisional horse categories and five people categories. One of the divisional champions will be recognized as the Somebeachsomewhere Horse of the Year. The winners will be announced at the Virtual O’Brien Awards Gala on Feb. 6, with the gala to be streamed on standardbredcanada.ca.