LAS VEGAS — Several gallops out of the gate, Rose’s Crystal stuttered. The 4-year-old roan filly nearly bumped into the beast in front of her, so jockey Juan Hernandez pulled up a bit.
About 330 miles from that eighth race, a mile on the Del Mar turf on Aug. 29, Justin Mustari stood on a platform here inside Bally’s Event Center. He viewed a giant screen and held his breath.
In the final race of the prestigious National Horseplayers Championship, the Des Plaines native had everything riding on 19-to-1 shot Rose’s Crystal.
“From watching thousands of races, when they pull up like that it usually [isn’t good]. The jockey and the horse usually are not on the same page,” says Mustari. “I thought, ‘Well, I’m out of it here.’ ”
Still, he knew the filly could finish, part of why he’d tapped her. She settled. The hiccup helped Hernandez ease her into a comfortable position and pace.
“She came around the last turn, started making a move,” says Mustari, “and that’s when it all basically blurred.”
Rose’s Crystal beat Warrens Candy Girl by three-quarters of a length, paying $41.80 to win, $16.40 to place. It paid Mustari the $725,000 NHC first-place prize. At 26, he became the NHC’s youngest 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 Horse Racing Nation editor and Vegas Sports & Information Network thoroughbred scribe Ron Flatter, and others, began interviewing Mustari, he remained in that blur.
“Laconic, so stunned,” says Flatter. “Rose’s Crystal is a closer, so her start wasn’t as important as her finish. That was probably the most dramatic ending in the 22-year history of the contest.”
MOVIN’ ON UP
Mustari had participated in the last three NHCs. Frank and Dan are regulars, too. His dad owned horses — Justin might have been 5 in his first winner’s-circle photograph — and has returned to that business.
Justin relished days at the track with his paternal grandparents, other relatives and many friends.
He’s somewhat sentimental about Arlington International’s imminent closure and he qualified for the NHC via a Hawthorne contest, but he considers Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach, Florida, where his family owns a condo, his home park.
At Maine West High School, Mustari played baseball and golf, in which he made state as a senior. He also golfed for Oakton Community College and Aurora University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration.
He has qualified for the last few Illinois Opens, owns a 1 handicap and has sunk two hole-in-ones. And he helps Frank, under whose roof Justin still lives, run Five Star Insulation Corp. in Des Plaines.
Justin has been saving money for years, to obtain a home for him and girlfriend, Paulina, in a seller’s market. Their eventual zip code has definitely been enhanced.
UNEASY LIES THE HEAD
The three-day NHC began Aug. 27. More than 450 players held 563 entries. Each entry included 52 mythical $2 win-and-place bets, and Sunday’s final round required betting on the same races.
By Saturday night, Mustari had the lead and a queasy constitution. He was unsettled at Tom Colicchio’s Heritage Steak, his favorite Vegas restaurant that features an open kitchen inside the Mirage.
He barely finished half of his filet, cheesy mashed potatoes and spicy onion rings. The meal was typically delectable, but equines raced around the tiny circuit in his noggin.
He retired to his room, studying till 12:30 a.m. He slept uneasily. He rose at 5:45 to study. The contest resumed. He won nothing for a six-race stretch.
“I put myself into a spot,” says Mustari. “I was trying to give myself a chance to get back into the lead, or be close. Going into that last race, there were only a couple of options.”
GOING FOR IT
A horse with slim odds might have ensured finishing fourth, or so, to secure a $100,000 payday. However, in those wee-small hours he had circled Rose’s Crystal, in that 11-horse field, after recalibrating her true odds.
She had last run, at Santa Anita, on Jan. 31. He knew trainer Carla Gaines’ success rate, with a layoff of at least 90 days, had been around 8%.
“Not something a gambler, or handicapper, would say is a good bet,” says Mustari. “But to be 19-1, and for me to think the horse should be 6-1 or 7-1 — assuming she’s in good form coming off a layoff — seemed the logical play.”
Frank often spoke about embracing once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, which helped Justin deliberate. “I might never have this chance again,” Justin told his dad before the race. “I would be sick if I didn’t take this opportunity.”
Rose’s Crystal delivered. He finished with $370.80, nipping 2014 champ Jose Arias, who had amassed $347.20. Mustari also won an Eclipse Award, as the continent’s horseplayer of the year, and entry to the 2022 NHC.
He fetched his winner’s check at a Caesars cashier’s cage. For the return flight to Chicago, he slipped that check into a hidden zipper-pocket in his backpack. The entire way home, on the cabin floor, his feet squeezed that backpack.
His bank needed time to clear the check, but he finally saw the amount reflected in his account upon waking Wednesday morning.
“It’s official,” Mustari wrote in a text. “Now it feels real!”