A salary at the races for Justin Mustari

LAS VEGAS – Several gallops out of the door, Rose’s Crystal stammered. The 4 year old roan filly almost collided with the beast in front of her, so jockey Juan Hernandez stopped for a bit.

About 330 miles from this eighth race, one mile across the Del Mar turf on August 29, Justin Mustari was standing on a platform here inside Bally’s Event Center. He looked at a giant screen and held his breath.

In the final race of the prestigious National Horseplayers Championship, the native of Des Plaines had ridden everything on Rose’s Crystal at 19 to 1.

“Looking at thousands of races, when they happen like that, it’s usually [isn’t good]. The jockey and the horse are generally not on the same wavelength, ”explains Mustari. “I thought, ‘Well, I’m doing fine here.’ “

Still, he knew the filly could finish, part of the reason he had tapped her. She settled down. The hiccups helped Hernandez get her into a comfortable position and pace.

“She got to the last corner, started to move,” Mustari says, “and that’s when it all just fell apart.”

Rose’s Crystal beat Warrens Candy Girl by three-quarter lengths, paying $ 41.80 to win, $ 16.40 to place. He paid Mustari the NHC prize of $ 725,000 for first place. At 26, he became the youngest NHC champion.

His uncle Dan spilled a beer as he pushed Justin into the arms of his father, Frank, who kept barking: “Oh, my God!

As Ron Flatter, Editor-in-Chief of Horse Racing Nation and Thoroughbred Scribe of Vegas Sports & Information Network, and others, began interviewing Mustari, he was left in limbo.

“Laconic, so stunned,” said Flatter. “Rose’s Crystal is closer, so her departure was not as important as her arrival. It was probably the most dramatic end of the contest’s 22-year history. “


Mustari had participated in the last three NHCs. Frank and Dan are also regulars. His father owned horses – Justin was maybe 5 in his first Winner’s Circle photo – and returned to this business.

Justin enjoyed his days on the track with his paternal grandparents, other relatives and many friends.

He’s somewhat sentimental about the impending closure of Arlington International and he’s qualified for the NHC via a Hawthorne competition, but he’s considering Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach, Fla., Where his family owns a condo, his park. reception.

At Maine West High School, Mustari played baseball and golf, in which he made the state as a senior. He also played golf for Oakton Community College and Aurora University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration.

He qualified for the last Illinois Open, has a handicap of 1 and sank two holes at once. And he’s helping Frank, under whose roof Justin still lives, run Five Star Insulation Corp. at Des Plaines.

Justin saved money for years to get a house for himself and his girlfriend, Paulina, at a vendor’s market. Their possible postal code has definitely been improved.


The three-day NHC kicked off on August 27. More than 450 players held 563 registrations. Each entry included 52 Mythical $ 2 win and place bets, and Sunday’s final round required bets on the same races.

On Saturday night, Mustari was ahead and a nauseous constitution. He was troubled at Tom Colicchio’s Heritage Steak, his favorite Vegas restaurant that has a show kitchen inside the Mirage.

He’s barely finished half his tenderloin, his cheesy mashed potatoes and his spicy onion rings. The meal was generally delicious, but the equines raced around the small circuit in his noggin.

He retired to his room and studied until 12:30. He slept uncomfortably. He got up at 5:45 am to study. The competition has resumed. He hasn’t won anything in six races.

“I put myself in a position,” Mustari says. “I was trying to give myself a chance to regain control or be close. Before this last race, there were only a few options. “


A horse with slim chances could have made sure to finish fourth, or so, to earn a salary of $ 100,000. However, in those very wee hours, he had circled Rose’s Crystal, in that field of 11 horses, after recalibrating his true chances.

She had run for the last time, in Santa Anita, on January 31. He knew that Coach Carla Gaines’ success rate, with a layoff of at least 90 days, had been around 8%.

“It’s not something a player or handicapper would say is a good bet,” Mustari says. “But being 19-1, and to me thinking the horse should be 6-1 or 7-1 – assuming she’s in good shape after a layoff – seemed the logical game.”

Frank spoke often about seizing unique opportunities, which helped Justin deliberate. “I might never get that chance again,” Justin told his dad before the race. “I would be sick if I didn’t take this opportunity.

Rose crystal delivered. He finished with $ 370.80, knocking out 2014 champion Jose Arias, who had raised $ 347.20. Mustari also won an Eclipse Award, as the continent’s horse player of the year, and entry to the 2022 NHC.

He fetched his winner’s check from a Caesars cashier’s cage. For the flight back to Chicago, he slipped this check into a zipped pocket hidden in his backpack. All the way back, on the cabin floor, his feet gripped that backpack.

His bank needed time to clear the check, but he finally saw the amount reflected in his account when he woke up Wednesday morning.

“It’s official,” Mustari wrote in a text. “Now that seems real! ”

About Jonathan Bell

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