Justin Mustari will remember the name Rose’s Crystal every day for the rest of his life. He’ll remember it every time he walks into his new house and looks at the Eclipse Award on the mantle. And he’ll remember the name of the filly who made him the youngest champion in National Horseplayers Championship (NHC) history.

Justin Mustari-NHC winner
Justin Mustari shows off his $725,000 winner’s check with National Thoroughbred Racing Association CEO Alex Waldrup. The 26-year-old Mustari became the youngest winner of the National Horseplayers Championship, outlasting 563 entries to win the most prestigious handicapping contest in the country. (Image: Horsephotos)

The 26-year-old Mustari outlasted 563 other entries, winning the three-day NHC held at Bally’s Las Vegas. To the winner go spoils of $725,000, an Eclipse Award as Horseplayer of the Year award, and entry into the 2022 NHC, which returns to its customary wintertime date next year on Jan. 28-30.

Mustari, who works for his father’s insulation contracting company in Des Plaines, Illinois, rolled up a three-day bankroll of $370.80. That came via 52 mythical $2 Win and Place bets made over the tournament. Mustari made 17 bets on Friday, 18 on Saturday, 10 in Sunday morning’s semifinals, and seven at Sunday’s final table.

But it was that last bet on Rose’s Crystal that put Mustari over the top. The 4-year-old filly hasn’t run since finishing third in a Santa Anita Park allowance on Jan. 31. Three weeks before that, however, she won a Santa Anita maiden special weight, breaking her maiden on her ninth try.

Mustari completed a betting Hail Mary

This explains why Rose’s Crystal went off at 19/1 in the one-mile turf allowance optional claimer. That, in turn, explains why Mustari went all-in on Rose’s Crystal on the seventh and final race at the final table. He went into that race sitting in fourth, trailing 2014 NHC champion Jose Arias, who was trying to be the first NHC two-time winner.

“I had to give myself a chance to win with this kind of money,” Mustari said. “I definitely didn’t like this horse as a top pick, but I had to find something in the range that could get me there. I thought this horse coming off the layoff potentially had a chance if he ran back to some earlier numbers, and he did.”

Rose’s Crystal did better than that. She came from six lengths back at the half-mile call, took the lead at the stretch beginning, and motored home by nearly a length. Her 96 Equibase Speed Figure bettered her previous best from that January allowance by six points. And she paid $41.80 to win and $16.40 to place.

Final day blues made the plot thicken

Mustari led the tournament going into Sunday’s semifinals, but lost the lead to Arias. Tightening the screws further, Mustari didn’t cash in the first six mandatory final table races.

Arias, from Bell Gardens, California, wound up second with $347.20. He likely missed his shot at becoming the first two-time NHC champion when he failed to get a pick in for the second mandatory race at the final table. Arias told reporters afterward he had a personal matter to deal with, but wouldn’t have cashed with his favored horse anyway. He settled for $200,000, bringing him to second overall in lifetime NHC earnings with $956,000. Michael Beychok, the 2012 NHC winner, sits atop that ladder with $1,015,3.00

Chris Goodall of Winter Park, Florida, finished third ($345.60), earning $150,000. Goodall’s mother, Sally, captured the 2020 NHC Tour title. A record-tying, 19-time NHC Qualifier, Sally Goodall would have won a $2 million bonus had she brought home the NHC title. Her best of two entries finished 40th ($210.20), earning her $11,700. Chris Goodall’s dad, Richard, won the 2008 NHC.

Realtors in Des Plaines, take note

There were 456 players at the 2021 NHC, with 563 entries. Several competitors qualified with two entries, including defending champion Thomas Goldsmith. He reached the semifinals with both of his entries, finishing 18th ($246.80) and 25th ($224.20).

The NHC paid 56 places, and it took a bankroll of $174.20 to finish 56th and earn $10,000.

As for Mustari, he’s already spent part of his windfall. “I’ve got to buy a house because I still live with my parents,” he said. “My dad has been the reason I play this game and he taught me everything I know, so I have to give a lot of credit to him.”