An unlikely bet on a 19-1 long shot Sunday in a $72,000 allowance race on the Del Mar turf thrust Justin Mustari to a dramatic, come-from-behind victory in the 2021 National Horseplayers Championship, an event postponed six months because of the pandemic.
The victory worth $725,000 in cash and the Eclipse Award as the top horseplayer in North America came as a result of what Mustari admitted was an absolute prayer.
“That was amazing, and I’m just in shock,” said Mustari, 26, an aspiring golfer from Des Plaines, Ill., who works for his father’s insulation contracting company. “That’s what everyone comes here for. Play long shots, and you’ve got to hit a bunch of them to win.”
When 4-year-old filly Rose’s Crystal made a triumphant, deep closing finish to the eighth race at Del Mar, she allowed Mustari to steal the victory from José Arias, who was poised to become the first two-time winner in the 22-year history of the NHC.
Looking like he was going through an out-of-body experience, Mustari stood in stark contrast to his father Frank, 57, and his uncle Dan, 54, both of whom are old hands at handicapping contests and were also in the NHC.
As Rose’s Crystal picked off horses in the homestretch, Justin was on center stage at Bally’s Event Center clapping his hands like a jockey going to the stick. Watching a big screen across the room, Dan Mustari pushed his nephew forward, gleefully spilling a beer in celebration. The new champion then fell into a bear hug from his father, who was repeatedly and hoarsely yelling “Oh, my God!”
Dressed head to toe in black, Mustari became the youngest winner in NHC history, defeating more than 450 other players who held 563 entries. Minutes after the triumph, he struggled to make sense of what just happened to him.
“The money is unreal,” he said. “To win an event like this is amazing.”
Only a few feet from the Mustaris’ celebration, Arias calmly accepted defeated, not to mention the $200,000 second prize. His horse in the last race, Big Mama Sue (12-1), finished eighth. Before that he held a scant $1.60 lead over eventual third-place finisher Christopher Goodall, who went with Keep Dancing (9-2), who finished fourth.
“It was such a difficult race,” Arias said. “It was such a great sequence for the NHC. I did my best. I took the horse that I thought could win, and it didn’t happen in the last race.”
Mustari was in fourth place, trailing by $34.60 going into the finale. That meant he needed a horse to finish with something better than about 11-1 to win or 16-1 to place to have a chance.
“I definitely didn’t like this horse as a top pick,” he said, “but I had to find something in that range. I caught this horse off a layoff. I thought he could have a chance if he ran back to her numbers, and he did.”
Mustari was so caught up in the moment, he forgot the race was for fillies and mares. State-bred fillies and mares, in fact.
Rose’s Crystal paid $41.80 to win and $16.40 to place, so Mustari wound up with what looks like a lopsided victory in the contest that requires the eventual winner to be best at handicapping 53 races over a three-day period of mythical $2 win-place bets. Actually, it was 52 races this year; a mandatory race at Ellis Park was canceled because of weather Friday.
For Arias, it was only 51. He completely missed playing the third race in the final round, saying afterward, “I was dealing with a personal issue, and I don’t want to comment.”
That did not mean the pick he might have made would have made a difference. If there was any solace in defeat, Mustari’s final total of $370.80 was $13.60 better than Arias. He would have needed at least about a 4-1 win payoff or 6-1 to place on the missing selection in order to beat Mustari.
Had he won, Arias, a resident of Bell Gardens, Calif., would have broken Michael Beychok’s long-standing record of $1,015,300, the most dollars earned in a career of NHC performances. Now Arias holds the distinction of being the only competitor to win one NHC and finish second in another.
“Second place is great,” Arias said. “That’s horse racing. You just have to put your best foot forward and then hope for the best. You do all the work, but you never know what’s going to happen in the race.”
Mustari knows what Arias learned in 2014 – an NHC victory can be life changing. Especially since the oversized check for $725,000 that he was presented by outgoing National Thoroughbred Racing Association CEO Alex Waldrop will go a long way for him in suburban Chicago.
“I’ve got to buy a house, because I still live with my parents,” Mustari said. “My dad has been the reason that I play this game. He’s taught me everything I know. I have to give a lot of credit to him. My girlfriend, my mom and my brothers were here. They flew out (Sunday) morning. They’re home right now.”
This was not the first time Mustari has reached a once-in-a-lifetime, competitive high. He competed as a golfer at Aurora University, and while he hopes to turn the sport into more than just an avocation, he already has two holes-in-one to his name.
Asked whether those aces were still better than what happened Sunday, he said, “They’re not even close.”
He can remind his family of that when they come over to the new house one day soon and see an Eclipse Award with his name on it.