The King of Adare Castle

An all-around horseman with a career that most would envy, the only thing that had been missing from Mark Etsell’s resume was a bonafide superstar. Then, in the fall of 2020, he managed to make his way to Maryland in the middle of a global pandemic, where he made just one bid - the winning one - on a Muscle Mass filly by the name of Adare Castle. By John Rallis.

With over $8.4 million in career purses as a trainer, and another $5.9 million or so on the driving side, Mark Etsell of Hanover, Ontario is an all-around horseman who has had a career most would envy. The one thing missing however, until recently at least, was a bonafide stable star. That was until Mark made his way to Maryland, in the middle of a global pandemic, and made just one bid on the Muscle Mass filly - Adare Castle - that would change his life forever.

A cheeseburger and fries at the Red Barn restaurant in London, Ontario was what helped lure a young Mark Etsell to make the trip down to Western Fair on Friday nights with his dad to watch live racing. It wasn’t the horses, nor the thrill of picking a winner, but something as simple as a casual restaurant delicacy - and thank goodness for that.

“I didn’t have any interest in harness racing growing up, honestly,” admits Etsell. “My neighbour was Norm Fitzsimmons, who was Larry Fitzsimmons’ father. He and my dad would go to Western Fair on a Friday night to watch Larry race horses and I’d tag along the odd time. Funny enough, I only tagged along because they’d stop at the Red Barn restaurant in London and I’d get a cheeseburger with fries. That right there was my enticement to go to the track. That’s basically how I got introduced to harness racing,” he laughs.

Mark grew up on a farm south of Hanover, Ontario near the village of Ayton, but he was never exposed to horses at a young age. When he was 10, his father left the farm life behind and began working at a factory in Hanover, the town where Mark spent the majority of his youth. That’s also where Mark found his first hobby.

“I was heavy into speed,” says Etsell. “I developed a love for motorsports when I was young so I pestered my father for a mini-bike when I was 11 or 12. I saw one in the Eaton’s catalogue and was smitten by it immediately. So, of course, I got one and that became my main focus throughout my teen years.

“I was a member of the CMA [Canadian Motocross Association]. My number was 578, and I raced in 125, which is one of the most competitive classes because there were the highest number of entries in it. I placed a few times, which was good.”

At one point, after high school, Etsell thought that motorsports would be something he’d do as a career, but getting closer to his twenties made him realize he might not be as risk tolerant as he was when he was younger.

“When I was in high school it was easy because I could bounce back and recover easily from the injuries. When you don’t have to get up and go to work, as opposed to just going to school, your risk factor changes. Once I was out of high school and got a job, I wasn’t as brave as I used to be. I didn’t take the risks that needed to be taken to compete at the level to be a pro.”

Etsell gave up the dream of becoming a motorsport star, but still partook in some competitive snowmobile meets around the province. After high school he got a job working in a snowmobile/motorcycle shop and then got one at Zellers doing shipping and receiving in the stockroom.

“While I was working I had some friends that were in the [horse racing] industry and one day I ended up at a local auction for race horses,” he says. “Next thing you know I stuck my hand up and I ended up buying one on a whim. I was like, wow… I own this thing, now what do I do?”

My girlfriend back then - who became my wife - worked at a local factory, and her co-worker’s husband had horses. It was a quick phone call to pick up the horse and look after him, and then I eventually got involved. Unfortunately, the horse wasn’t any good, nor did it ever win a race. In fact, it spent most of its time qualifying… but it taught me a lot,” he admits.

Despite his first horse purchase being a failure, Mark still went on to buy a couple of others. This time however, he was going to be taking care of them himself.

“I got married and money was tight. I had a few horses and I said ‘jeez, I better start looking after them myself’. So that’s what I did. Early every morning [before work] I’d drive to Hanover and jog the horses. I just learned as I went.”

One thing about Etsell is that he was determined. His failures drove him to want success… and that’s why he kept going.

“I enjoyed the challenge of something new. Dealing with a live animal as opposed to a machine is different. I could fix engines and change wheels on snowmobiles and motorcycles, but dealing with a live animal is a challenge I enjoyed. I mean, if you’ve ever sat behind a horse, you’d know how thrilling it is.”

“I just got the bug… I got bit… the competitiveness of it all and so forth. Sure, I didn’t have the success at the start, but it drove me to want to get it.”

In 1978 or 1979, Etsell got his trainer’s license. Two years later, in the summer of ‘81, he followed that up by getting his driver’s license.

“Horses were only part-time, but then I started winning a few races and next thing you know people were listing me on their horses. That’s how it started for me. It was a nice, little catch-driving career.”

Shortly after that it was decision time for Etsell, whose family and stable were growing in size.

“My daughter Jennifer was born in ‘82, and I was still working in a co-op, but the number of horses I was training was increasing. I had six or eight total and then it was beginning to be too much to juggle it all. I approached my wife and said ‘Look, I really enjoy this and I want to give this a go full-time’. I told her ‘I’ll try it for a year and if it doesn’t work out, and we can’t make a living out of it, I’ll get out and we won’t talk about this again. But I have to give it a shot.’”

Mark got the blessing from his wife and the rest is history. He never went back to working for anyone again.

Etsell enjoyed training more than he did driving, but had the luxury of doing both for a number of years. By doing so it gave him the chance to drive for some quality horseman, one of which being John Bax.

“I drove some horses for John Bax, and that was luck,” admits Mark. “He actually had a couple of pacers back then who landed in Hanover in a sires stakes event. A lot of guys weren’t willing to travel from Mohawk to Hanover to drive in a Mickey Mouse sires stakes. Bax listed me and I won with both of them that night.”

Because of those wins he also got the call to drive a young trotter of Bax’s in the early stages of his career - one who would eventually surpass $2.2 million in earnings, something Mark still relishes to this day.

“When John was racing Goodtimes at three he wasn’t the most consistent horse at the time. He made a lot of breaks. Dave Wall was driving him and that’s when [OSS] Golds were eliminations one week and a final the next week. He had raced him in Sarnia and he made a break, finishing 8th, but he entered in the final and got in because only eight or so had entered. I had about eight drives at Hanover on a Saturday night and John phoned me and said ‘Will you go to Sarnia and drive Goodtimes?’. I said I’d love to, but I have eight drives and I don’t want to get fined. Eventually I phoned the judges and explained to them that this is my opportunity to drive in a $100,000 race, and they gave me the green light.”

So that Saturday I drove to Sarnia and I drove Goodtimes to a second place finish behind Armbro Marshall. I’m not saying I could’ve beaten him, but I didn’t push Goodtimes overly hard. I mean, that was a big pay cheque for John and I so I wasn’t going to take the risk of him going off-stride. I drove him a couple of more times after that and fortunately for him he learned how to stay trotting… the rest of his career is history. Then, of course, Wally wanted back on and made all the money with him after I got him to stay trotting,” jokes Mark.

Etsell had the opportunity to pick up even more drives back then, but his mind was always on training his own horses, something he loved to do.

“They offered me drives if I came down to Greenwood, and it was pretty enticing, but I enjoyed training so much that I didn’t want to give up training my own horses. So I made the decision to concentrate on my own. I never ruled out driving the odd time, but training was something I was set on doing. So I took on that venture on a more full-time basis.

Etsell worked with cheap horses at the beginning, before he got hooked on training younger stock - something he’s never looked back on since the late eighties.

“In the fall of 1988, myself and a couple of partners… there was a [yearling] sale at the backstretch of Woodbine at the time and we bought a horse called Tantallon Wonder [p,1:57.4h; $189,630] for right around $10,000. I was able to get my first stakes win in 1989, with him, in London. That’s what got me hooked on training colts and stuff like that.

“I love working with young horses. There’s a lot of disappointments with them but there’s a lot of highlights to developing a young horse as well. There’s a lot of personal gratification, just teaching them and watching them develop. I learned to have a lot of patience with them as well. Working with them has also helped me with my day-to-day life; today things could be bad but there’s always tomorrow. They’ve taught me a lot even off the track.”

Etsell was a self-taught horseman, but learned some things along the way, specifically from Bud Fritz, who he was stabled with for a few years starting in 1998.

“Bud’s one of the finest horsemen this country has ever produced, so being stabled at his farm was great. He was a man of very few words, so I just watched and paid attention. He taught me a lot.”

Etsell recalls a moment he shared with Bud while training one morning.

“I had Blossom Seelster in the early 2000’s. It was the end of February and I just trained her and something spooked her. I came a half in 57 [seconds], which is way too much at the time and she just took off. I’m standing there and the groom is bathing her. I’m looking at her and I’m thinking ‘Oh man, I just screwed this filly’. I’m staring at the horse, pretty depressed, and Bud comes over to me and says ‘What are you doing, counting your money? Don’t worry, she’s a good one.’”

Fritz was right as the trotting lass would earn $202,482 for Etsell in that upcoming three-year-old season, including a victory in a $100,000 PASS event at The Meadows with her trainer in the bike.

Throughout his years of training, one of Etsell’s greatest highlights came in 2017, when he captured his first ever Dream Of Glory title at Hanover Raceway, with his colt, Mister Muscle. It wasn’t just that he won, but who was a part of it that made it special.

“I started to build a relationship with Bob [McClure] because he started driving at Hanover. I was stabled in Barrie and I’d started sending some horses down… I’d list Bob on most of them. I saw him drive a bit and I liked the way he did everything in the bike. I was impressed by him.

“[In 2017] Bob couldn’t make it to the Dream Of Glory elims, and I drove and made the final… When the draw came out Bob was listed on a couple. We drew the rail and I talked to Bob and I told him, ‘I’m not telling you what to do, but you should take mine. I think this horse can win next week’. He had lots of horse finishing, because I didn’t abuse him and I was confident he was the one to beat.”

Ultimately, McClure did take the Etsell-trainee and they were able to deliver what was the first ever Dream Of Glory title for each.

“That was special because I grew up in Hanover and he began his career driving there, so for the both of us to capture our first ever Dream Of Glory title together was really special. Honestly, we’ve become very good friends over the years. I treat him like my third son - we’re really close. When we’re not at the track we spend a lot of time playing pool. Bob’s a good pool player, but he lost money last night, let’s just put it that way,” jokes Etsell.

As for McClure, he shares the same sentiment about that night.

“Obviously, I’ve been fortunate enough to win some big races in my career but winning that for Mark and I was special. He’s done more for me in my career than I’ve done for him.

“Mark is very reserved when it comes to himself, but you get him talking about his horses and he won’t stop,” laughs Bob. “He’ll have more to say about them than he will about himself. He’s got some real gems in his stable, and none of them get talked about enough until you watch them race. He’s a hybrid in terms of applying old school methods to new school. His strength is breaking colts and getting them to the races.”

Etsell’s demeanor shelters just how funny a guy he is - both on and off the track.

“I remember I had two good maidens to qualify one morning a couple of weeks ago at Mohawk,” shares McClure. “Mark said he’d go with one of them, but I wasn’t sure whether or not he actually would. So we’re coming out on the track and I see him in front of me… I was relieved. So I came up beside him and I said, ‘So they did end up using you, huh?’, and then I said, a la The A-Team, ‘I love it when a plan comes together’. We’re going to the gate, he’s the 4, I’m the 5, and he sees me going on the run. He turns back to me and says: ‘How’s your plan coming together now?”

Speaking of qualifiers, it’s where McClure discovered Etsell’s prized filly a couple of years ago, that being, Adare Castle.

“I qualified against Adare Castle and I go ‘Well, jeez, where have you been hiding this one?’ And luckily for me, I was going to get to sit behind her.”

Throughout his years, Etsell has always had a strong stable and put up respectable numbers. He usually has somewhere between 125-225 starts, and his stable usually grinds out something in the vicinity of $300,000 in purses per year. The man has had plenty of good horses, but lacked that true, generational stable star. Three years ago, that all changed.

“It was 2020 and we were in the middle of COVID, so the Harrisburg sale had been moved to Maryland,” says Etsell. “The first key for me was how I was going to get there. A lot of people were getting turned away at the border so I was nervous about that. Luckily, I flew out there with no issues. I had a handful of yearlings that I was interested in and Adare Castle was one of them. Funny enough though, it wasn’t her video that I was impressed with. The thing that attracted me was that I loved the family.

“Under my guidelines, Adare’s family was a ‘filly family’. I liked the family well enough and the video was just ok. So we got there, I looked at her and I liked her. I wrote in my book, ‘$35,000-38,000’ range. It was a nice day, I was outside having a beverage with a friend of mine. I thought I had lots of time and next thing you know I heard her name. I ran inside and she was at $8,000 and I threw my hand up. The next thing you know the hammer’s down at $10,000 and she’s mine. I said ‘Wow, what did I miss? Did I hear the wrong horse?’ Nope, #698, Adare Castle. I was confused, but I said, ‘Well, she’s mine for $10,000, I guess.’”

That was $10,000 well spent for Mark, who has enjoyed career years over his last two seasons, mainly courtesy of his prized filly - a run that includes a 2022 O’Brien Award, the first of Etsell’s career.

“It’s pretty surreal. I remember her first day of training didn’t go nearly as planned. She threw herself right in the mud. She has what we call ‘crazy eyes’. She looks like she could explode any second. She has that psycho look to her. She’s like that girlfriend where you sleep with one eye open,” jokes Etsell.

But when Adare Castle hit the racetrack it was strictly business for the filly who won 14 of her 22 starts at ages two and three, and amassed over $1.1 million in purse earnings, including a number of stakes victories.

“I was lucky enough to have, in my opinion, two of the best drivers at Mohawk sit behind my filly. Bob did a great job getting her going, but had to jump ship for a Determination filly, and I was fortunate enough to get James [MacDonald].

“Funny enough, Bob and I were walking back from the winner’s circle with her at Grand River after a Canadian and track record performance, and James was there on the sidelines. He said to us ‘Hey, congratulations, that’s a track record. Just think about how fast she could go with me driving her’. It was funny, there wasn’t even a commitment there and next thing you know he’s driving her and winning all sorts of races.”

Despite all the work Mark’s done over the years, he says he couldn’t have done it without his owners.

“I’ve had a loyal group of owners, guys who have been with me for over two decades, who have put their trust in me and it’s worked out well. To have a filly like Adare Castle and have them be a part of it after so many years together, is even more special. I’m very fortunate.”

Even after developing a millionaire though, Etsell says he won’t change his philosophy when it comes to buying yearlings come sale time. The man whose next star could come in the form of three-year-old gelding Busy Making Moni - a $6,000 Lexington yearling who has earned almost $30,000 this winter in just five career starts - seems to have found something that works for him.

“I look for value. I’ve bought lots of horses for $10,000 or less who have worked out pretty good for us… Once you get above $50,000 it’s hard to make money or get your money back. I like the 20s-40s range because you can get enough pedigree and conformation at that. I wouldn’t say I’m cheap, but I won’t pass up a bargain either.”

Adare Castle was a $10,000 purchase that has banked over $1.1 million in just 22 career starts - the man from Hanover definitely knows a bargain when he sees one!

 This feature originally appeared in the April issue of TROT Magazine. Subscribe to TROT today by clicking the banner below.

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