At the start of 2015, David Mussad had only ridden a horse a few times. Now, he's entered in his first race as a professional jockey. Mussad will be aboard Brite Sierra in the eighth race at Sacramento on Saturday, hoping to guide the Marcia Stortz trainee to his first victory.
Mussad, 27, was one of several students at the North American Racing Academy (NARA) featured in a multimedia series on the Paulick Report profiling a class through their first semester of instruction in race riding. The series followed the class from their first walks in the shedrow to their first gallops in an open field. Since graduating the NARA program, Mussad has been working as an exercise rider for Peter Miller, Rudolphe Brisset, and Wayne Catalano.
“I saw my name come up as a jockey on the Horses Races Now app earlier today,” Mussad said Wednesday. “I've been waiting for that moment my whole life.”
In his time with Brisset, Mussad rode a chestnut 2-year-old colt he knew was something special. He had no idea the colt would become the 2018 Triple Crown winner.
“If only I would have known!” he joked. “But (Justify) definitely felt a lot different than the other 2-year-olds. He was smarter. The stuff the other 2-year-olds would spook at, like a shadow on the ground, he wouldn't budge. He was smart, he had class to him.”
Mussad values his time as an exercise rider, much of which was spent as a salaried rider for Miller, but after several years he felt he had to choose between continuing on that career path or making the leap to jockey. As a salaried rider, he got on as many sets as possible, which meant he didn't have time to take horses to the gate. Working in the same barn each day also meant there were only two days out of seven when he had a chance to breeze horses.
“It's more mental than it is about the riding,” he said, speaking of preparing for the transition. “I really needed to focus. I'm really glad I waited. It's been three years since I started riding and I'm glad I waited until I started feeling really confident on any horse I hopped on. I didn't really get that feeling until I came back to California and started riding again with Peter Miller. Mentally, I had to get myself there.”
Mussad, a native of San Diego, tried to get a start in the Southern California jockey colony but found it hard to break in. Agents had established books, and it wasn't easy to get good representation as a bug rider. Agent Brent Harmon suggested Northern California may be a better place to get his feet wet, so he picked up and moved — one of many moves he's made in the last three years. Harmon agreed to take Mussad on before he'd actually seen him ride, and Mussad jokes now they were both a little nervous about that.
“I knew everyone's eyes were on me, but once he saw me, he felt better. We got a lot of good feedback right away,” he said. “You've got someone like that on your side who sees potential in you, it makes everything more enjoyable. For me to have someone like that, I don't want to let him down.”
Not being a salaried work rider has its advantages – he now gets more calls to breeze horses and work from the gate – but it also requires a lot more hustle. So far, Harmon has generated several leads for Mussad, and he's happy to ride wherever a trainer may need help in the morning. That can-do attitude is what he hopes will set him apart.
“The transition is hard because you're not really getting paid as a jockey starting out,” he said. “You're not making a salary like you were as an exercise rider, and everything in California is expensive. That's tough, but I planned for it.”
Far from being nervous, Mussad is looking forward to Saturday. He's not familiar with Brite Sierra, but plans to do his homework, watch race replays, and figure out what kind of ride the gelding needs.
“I want this bad,” he said. I've wanted it bad for a while now. There were so many times I wanted to say, 'Screw this, I'm done' but I just kept going, and kept going after it. I like to show up early, show my face around and let them know 'If you need anything, I'm here.' I want to prove to myself that I came this far, and it's not going to end here.”
Brite Sierra will break from post position four, facing seven rivals. Local post time for the eighth race is 5:45 p.m.
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