The wrong Justin but the right Mustari

With roughly 3/8ths of a mile to go in the final race of the NHC, I stopped focusing on the horses on the screen and started watching Justin Mustari, while still making occasional glances at the live Del Mar feed. Though my memory of the moment isn’t perfect, I’m fairly certain I began trying to ride the horse home with my arms and hands even before Justin did. Seconds later it was all over. #5 Rose’s Crystal crossed the wire in front and a 26 year old was $725,000 richer.

Earlier in the week, Justin’s dad, Frank Mustari, took me and the rest of Team LoneSpeed’s NHC contingent to dinner at a really nice steakhouse on the Vegas strip. I’ve known Frank for a couple years now. The first time we ever spoke was at the Hawthorne Invitational in 2019. Frank had just cashed a huge ticket in the Florida Derby when Maximum Security and Bodexpress ran 1-2 pushing his contest bankroll over $25,000 and into victory. I had been in the lead going into the race with about $5,300. I bet it all on Hidden Scroll. You know how that ended. Anyway, I congratulated Frank that day and he responded with “Hey, thanks man.” He may or may not have been thanking me for my contribution to the prize pool that he had just taken down.

At dinner this week, I offered to pick up my part of the check. Frank wouldn’t have it. Dinner was on him. I thanked him and he said “Hey, don’t thank me. I’m paying with the money I’ve won from you over the years. I should be thanking you.” Everyone at the table laughed.

When one of the early episodes of The LoneSpeed Show hit YouTube, Frank called me.

“Justin, I just watched the show. I want to thank you” he said.

“Oh yeah? Did you hit the 10-1 winner I gave out at the end?” I asked.

“10-1 winner? That doesn’t sound like something you’d hit. No no. I want to thank you because I’ve been having a hard time falling asleep lately, and after ten minutes of The LoneSpeed Show I was out like a light. Slept a good eight hours. All because your show bored me to tears” Frank said.

“So, then, you didn’t have my 10/1 winner?” I asked.

“Justin, you got hearing problems? I just told you I fell asleep after ten minutes” Frank reminded me.

Frank also urged me to fire myself from The LoneSpeed Show and let my wife host solo from now on after she gave out Medina Spirit in the Kentucky Derby and my pick, Highly Motivated, ran….not as well. “Just do everyone a favor and let her host from now on. You can just hold the camera,” he quipped.

Frank also texted me to say I was “cheap speed” when I made my way up the early leaderboard at the Keeneland NHC Contest last spring. He was right. I went bust two races and he won the contest.

Frank also pleaded with me to let him book every place bet I make for the rest of my life, with no limit. He says it’s because betting to place is dumb but I suspect it’s because he wants to be the one to profit from my bad opinions.

So yeah, that’s Frank. And it’s undeniable the money he’s won in various contests the last few years that went from my bank account to his is more than sufficient to cover the cost of the filet mignon and mashed potatoes I ordered. Maybe I should have eaten more.

Before we get back to Justin Mustari’s NHC triumph, I want to tell a quick story, because it’s going to be relevant later. Just bear with me for a second.

Back in 2009 I was writing for KentuckyDerby(dot)com and living in the Washington, DC area. Churchill Downs flew me out to Louisville and put me up in a hotel near the track for Derby Week. Coming to Louisville meant I got to see my dad. Both of my parents were born and raised in Derby City. I was born there too but never lived there. And when my parents split up around 20 years ago, my dad moved away from DC back to his hometown to take care of his parents. So I was excited to get some time to see my old man whenever my busy Derby blogging schedule allowed for it that week. I would have preferred to stay at his place while in town, but it was too far from the track and the folks at Churchill wanted me and the rest of the website team close to the track in case some crazy Derby Week situation arose.

On Wednesday night of Derby Week 2009, I was scheduled to speak to a group of Oaks and Derby attendees that had bought a travel package which included everything from seats on Derby Day to meals at fancy restaurants and “a seminar hosted by a horse racing expert.” Yes, I was that expert. (Insert a sarcastic comment from Frank Mustari here.)

So Wednesday arrived. I drive out to my dad’s place for lunch instead of dinner because he had plans later that night. I asked him what route I should take during rush hour to get from his house to my speaking engagement at a hotel ballroom downtown later that night. For as many times as I’ve been to Louisville, I’m still not all that familiar with the downtown area or local traffic patterns. My dad told me how to avoid traffic and apologized that he had plans and couldn’t drive me himself. He told me to have fun and we set tentative plans to grab dinner after the Derby on Saturday.

Long story not quite so long, I arrived at the speaking gig, talked for about an hour to a room full of people who had been told they were hearing from a “horse racing expert”, and I told them to bet Pioneerof The Nile and that Mine That Bird has “no chance” in the Derby. Yes, I actually said he had no chance. (Thank God Frank wasn’t there for that. He’d still be talking about it 12 years later).

Now, as unfamiliar as I am with downtown Louisville, I am very familiar with the area around Churchill Downs. Finding free parking a short walk from the track on Derby Day is a speciality of mine. So I told interested audience members to meet me at a table just off the stage after I was done thrusting words of wisdom and great gambling advice upon them, and I’d show them on a map where to park and save $50 on Derby Day.

My talk ended, 95% of the attendees filtered out of the room, and I headed to the table to meet around a dozen or so audience members who would go on to benefit more from my parking advice than my wagering advice. But as I was pointing to the spot on the map where I knew plenty of free street parking could be found, I noticed someone enter the ballroom out of the corner of my eye. Normally I’d never notice a thing like that. People enter rooms as we’re talking to others all the time and we are seldom drawn to the activity. But something in my brain caused me to look up. Maybe it was simply because one person was walking into the room as a couple hundred others were walking out. Or maybe it was something else. Either way, entering the room was a man wearing a baseball cap pulled down almost to his eyes. It took me a second to realize it was my dad. I wrapped up the free parking portion of the Derby seminar and a moment later it was just me and him in the room.

“I thought you had plans tonight” I questioned.

“Well I didn’t want to make you nervous so I lied about having plans. I wasn’t going to miss this,” responded my dad.

“Did you just get here?” I asked.

“No, I heard the whole thing. I sat in a chair outside the ballroom. You were great,” he proclaimed.

My dad knew how much horse racing meant to me. And the truth is I would have loved to see him in the audience. But he didn’t want to risk throwing me off my game. That’s the kind of man he was. I say “was” because back in 2016 he was diagnosed with dementia. He lives in a nursing home near me in Florida now, and that night in 2009 in the hotel ballroom was among the last times that my dad was still the dad I grew up with, if that makes sense. He started to decline a couple of years later, and being that we lived in different cities, I didn’t see him that often. But before we parted ways that night, he told me he was proud of me. I don’t remember if he actually said those words or not. But he didn’t have to. I could tell that he was just from the look on his face. My dad was proud of all three of his kids. His friends who still call me to check on his condition tell me so. And I guess seeing his son get paid to talk to a room full of people about his passion made him proud. I wonder if he ever realized I told the room that Mine That Bird had no chance. Even so, he’d have been proud anyway.

So the highlight of NHC 2021 for me wasn’t connecting with Team LoneSpeed. It wasn’t meeting Dylan Donnelly in person for the first time. And it certainly wasn’t my dismal performance in the NHC. It was seeing Frank hug Justin as they celebrated while the winning horse was galloping out. From across the room, you could see and feel how proud a dad was of his son. It reminded me of that night in the hotel ballroom with my dad and it made me very, very emotional. The truth is I barely know Frank and Justin. We’ve sat at the same contest table four or five times in recent years. Frank takes my phone calls and allows me to hurl questions about handicapping at him. (If anyone wants his number, let me know. I’d be thrilled to share it with the world as a way of saying thanks to Frank for the relentless abuse my ego and wallet have taken at his hands). But the reality is, my emotions at the end of the NHC had nothing to do with Justin’s win and everything to do with family.

I’ve been playing horses longer than Justin Mustari has been alive. He puts in the work and on Sunday, it paid off. His dad puts in the work and it’s paid off for him in the contest world this year as well. Dylan Donnelly puts in the work, and we know what kind of year he’s had. This game proves that if you put in the work, you can do great things. And seeing that fact so clearly over the last couple of years has forced me to admit that I need to work harder and work differently, starting now.

I had breakfast with Team LoneSpeed’s Steve DeCaspers on Sunday morning. You may know him as this year’s 12th place finisher at the NHC. For some reason we got to talking about Bruce Springsteen’s song Atlantic City. I listened to that song on the flight home from Vegas and I noticed a line I had never really thought about before…

“Well now our luck may have died and our love may be cold, but with you, forever I’ll stay.”

Since I am not from New Jersey and have no idea what this song is about, I’m not entirely sure what The Boss is singing about here. I’m fairly certain it has nothing to do with betting on horse racing. Call it a hunch. But like many things in my life, I’m going to make it about betting on horse racing. The harder we work, the better our luck becomes. And at least in my case, the better my luck becomes, the greater my love grows for this great game.

With horse racing, forever I’ll stay.

If Justin Mustari at age 26 and Dylan Donnelly at age 30 are at the pinnacle of this game, I have no excuse for not being there myself. It’s time for me to start over. Call the last 27 years playing the horses an education. A very, very expensive education. I’ve already won a few contest seats for upcoming events and I’ll be giving my best effort. But the focus for the next five months will be on revamping my game as I take a step back. I have no choice. Why enter this game if you don’t set your sights on being the best?

Had I know the winner of the 2021 NHC was named Justin, I’d have probably prepared harder. Had I know the winner of the 2021 NHC had the last name Mustari, I’d have said “Please God let it be Justin and not Frank.” In the 2021 handicapping contest world, if one of the Mustaris doesn’t get you, the other one will.

So, until NHC 2022…

Put your makeup on
Fix your hair up pretty
And meet me in January in Atlantic City…

…I mean Las Vegas.

Team LoneSpeed (from left to right; Marko Simonovic, Brent Schraff, Dylan Donnelly, Steve DeCaspers, Justin Dew, Steve Simonovic) Not Pictured: Rich Nilsen (double qualified for 2021 but unable to attend) and Craig Spencer (did not participate in NHC qualifiers this year)