Joe Mussillo keeps a horse’s tooth in his pickup truck.
It's a reminder for the Babylon-born equine dental technician of the impact he can have on a thoroughbred’s career.
The molar belonged to Will Take Charge, who was trained by Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas and had three lackluster finishes in the 2013 Triple Crown races.
“I was called up to the barn to work on him, it was a couple of weeks before the Jim Dandy,” Mussillo said of the 2013 Saratoga race that serves as a prep for the prestigious Travers Stakes. “He wasn’t eating. He was drooling out of his mouth. He didn’t want to train.
“He had a fractured baby molar in the back that was cutting into his tongue,” Mussillo said. “I pulled that tooth out of there and treated his tongue. He started eating again, he started doing well. He went on to win the Travers.”
“That horse will always stick in my mind,” Mussillo said.
Mussillo, 34, has owned and operated the Belmont Park-based JM Equine Services since 2012. With 62 barns, Belmont can house more than 2,000 horses, and Mussillo said he can see anywhere from 10 to 30 horses a day.
“I started working with animals when I was in 10th grade,” Mussillo said. “I knew I always wanted to work with animals. I grew up on the racetrack. My grandfather (Peter Mussillo, of North Babylon) was big into the horses. I’ve been into it most of my life. Once I realized I could connect the two — veterinary medicine and the racetrack — I was sold. Once the bug bites you, you’re bit.”
But getting bit isn't something Mussillo worries about, despite routinely having his hands in the mouths of a horses that weigh over a 1,100 pounds.
“As a rookie, there were a couple of nips," Mussillo said. "The longer you do it, the better you get at not getting bit. It’s almost like second nature now. I guess it’s like sticking your hand into a goody bag and not knowing what you’re going to pull out."
Mussillo makes his rounds at the barns each day carrying his dental tools, which he said are nothing like the ones people see on a visit to the dentist.
"They’re very different," Mussillo said. "They’re carbide steel files. I’d liken it to a very, very aggressive nail file. The speculum is what opens the mouth and keeps it from closing on me.”
Much of his work is "floating" the horses’ teeth, essentially taking off any sharp enamel points and keeping the teeth filed properly so the chewing surfaces remain smooth.
“We talk about them like athletes and they’re out training every morning,” Mussillo said. “You want to keep them comfortable, keep everything to a ‘T’ to where they don’t think about what’s going on in their mouth. Horses can have a little trouble focusing on what they have to do and, being how aggressive their job is, any points are a risk for cuts and a risk for the rider. Something that is not maintained in the mouth could cause an accident on the track.”
Mussillo completed his undergraduate degree at West Virginia University after getting a two-year degree at SUNY-Farmingdale. He then attended the American School of Equine Dentistry in Virginia. He works at different New York tracks as well as some out-of-state meets. He said 90 percent of his work is done on racetracks, but he also does farm work. He spent time at a Colorado ranch this spring working with 37 horses.
He acknowledged he “gets along with horses better than people,” and said looking into an animal’s mouth is a matter of confidence.
“It’s something you either have or you don’t,” Mussillo said. “Horses are magnificent at perception and intuition. If you’re scared or you don’t trust them — any kind of negative energy — they pick it up right away. I have never been scared of them. I have a natural trust in them. They pick up on it and they reciprocate the same. Horses, they demand patience from you.”
Mussillo examined Justify, last year’s Triple Crown winner, as well as American Pharoah, who in 2015 became the first to win the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont since Affirmed in 1978.
Mussillo called it an “honor” to be around such horse-racing royalty and loves every aspect of his job -- even the messy parts.
"They wouldn’t throw me out of the mix if I applied for that show, ‘Dirty Jobs,’ " Mussillo said. "At the end of the day, I’m pretty dirty with spit and chewed-up hay.”