Jason Portuondo has seen and done it all in racing – a kind of Forrest Gump who has changed jobs because of circumstances, coincidences and opportunities that led to some interesting and unexpected experiences – while also helping to break the colour barrier in broadcasting and horse racing.
Off and on for more than 35 years, Portuondo did it all: groomed for Standardbreds; exercised Thoroughbreds and even considered being a jockey but wasn’t light enough; worked Quarter Horses a few times with the thought of perhaps riding them in races but decided he didn’t have the passion. But most people know him for his broadcast work talking about horses and handicapping for multiple TV and radio outlets, including doing interviews on horseback with jockeys following major races.
Last May, he decided to hang up his microphone, so to speak, to begin a job as an official steward/judge with the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario, which regulates horse racing in the province. On any given day or night he might be working at one of the 15 racetracks in Ontario, which ties in his knowledge about the three breeds.
Portuondo says his job as an official is keeping him busy, but in a different way than what his broadcasting job entailed.
“I don’t have to look up the horses that are competing on a daily basis to see which are good and bad,” he says. “I’m affecting the game on a different level. We have so much problem-solving. I thought it was mostly watching races and being the referee, but that’s maybe 35 percent of our job. There’s so much more to the job than just coming in and officiating at the races, especially at the big tracks like Woodbine and Mohawk. We get a lot of stuff in the back office dealing with various issues involving both humans and horses. Outside of the office, we also deal with appeals, which involves putting put a package together. We do hearings and have to show up as a hearings officer or a witness and go up against a rider or driver or trainer. It’s a lot of that stuff.”
His introduction to horse racing started out as mid-teen grooming Standardbreds on the weekend for veteran Harold Stead, with whom Portuondo’s uncle had horses. While watching Thoroughbred racing he met Kevin Attard, whose father, Tino, trained horses. Portuondo switched breeds and began as a hotwalker/exercise rider. He later became a freelance exercise rider before working specifically for trainers who included Mark Frostad and Mike Keogh. The big stars at Keogh’s barn were galloped exclusively by two riders, one of whom was Fenton Platts. He later became a racing official and now works with Portuondo whenever they are assigned together.
When it comes to galloping, one of Portuondo’s most memorable horses was Kathie’s Colleen, who raced 11 times in total over two years and recorded four wins and $188,097 in earnings. She was a runner-up in the 1995 Canadian Oaks and went on to win the Grade 2 Monmouth Oaks.
A Chance Meeting
Becoming a broadcaster happened unexpectedly while studying commerce at the University of Toronto. A friend of his managed the school’s radio station, which was looking for someone to co-host a sports show. Portuondo did it and enjoyed it so much he decided to pursue it as a full-time career. He enrolled at Seneca College’s two-year Applied Arts and Technology Program and his first job happened because of a chance meeting when he saw broadcaster Peter Gross at an ATM machine at Woodbine. Gross was working then as the sports director for Toronto radio station 680 News.
“I can still see it to this very day,” recalls Portuondo with a laugh. “I said, ‘Hey Mr. Gross, I’m an aspiring broadcaster and I know who you are.’ He brought me on as an intern. It was kind of cool because in my second year of the Broadcast Journalism Program I was working as an intern at 680 News and then became an actual employee. That’s where it all started for real, outside of me working at U of T radio and Rogers Cable TV, which gave me so much experience working on TV.”
He subsequently sent out his resumé to some 20 stations across Canada and received two TV offers, one from a CBC affiliate in Kingston and the other a CTV affiliate in Victoria. He chose Kingston because of the proximity to home. There were few black broadcasters in the industry at the time and he became one of, if not the first, on Kingston TV.
“To be honest, I wasn’t sure how I wasn’t going to received by the people of Kingston, but it turned out to be an amazing experience,” says Portuondo. “I consider it my home away from home.”
In 1999, he was hired by Woodbine Entertainment to do the in-house shows and added to his duties when he replaced the departing host for shows on network TV. “I was chomping at the bit, pardon the pun,” says Portuondo.
Woodbine Entertainment produced Thoroughbred and Standardbred racing broadcasts for The Score and Rogers Sports. “It worked out well because I knew both breeds,” said Portuondo. “Broadcasting was my career and horses have been part of my life forever. It was the perfect exacta. I had a chance to marry my two passions. I love horse racing and obviously I love broadcasting, so it gave me a chance to do both.”
He was subsequently hired by Rogers Sportsnet as a reporter/anchor in October 2002 and worked at the company for eight years. He became one of the few black sports broadcasters at the time.
“I would go to universities, colleges, high schools and even junior high schools talking about the broadcast industry and the opportunities,” says Portuondo. “So many black kids would come up to me and say, ‘It’s so great to see because it makes me realize I have a chance to be a part of it.’ Hearing that made me feel good.
“I’m not saying I’m Jackie Robinson, because I wasn’t the first. Did it help that I was black? It probably did. But I was told by my boss, ‘It didn’t matter if you were purple. If you weren’t any good, I’m not going to hire you.’ I thought I was a decent broadcaster; it was just a bonus that I was ethnic. It was kind of a win-win.”
Gross says Portuondo was the beneficiary of a cultural change in broadcasting to make it more diverse to reflect the ethnic mix in Toronto and Canada as a whole. “It probably was some kind of benefit for his early years as a broadcaster, but he showed up with a boatload of talent, always easy to work with,” says Gross.
Portuondo also hosted and produced a weekly two-hour sports show on Toronto radio station G98.7 FM. He added to his schedule working with broadcaster Joe Tilley on a TV show called Talkin’ Horses. He also did trackside reporting for TSN for its racing broadcasts.
He returned to Woodbine Entertainment in 2016 as racing host/analyst. For the broadcast of Thoroughbred racing produced for TSN, Portuondo interviewed winning jockeys from horseback.
Portuondo’s rise in the industry did not surprise Gross. “When he returned to Woodbine he had everything in the suitcase necessary to do a terrific job,” says Gross.
A New Career Path
But Portuondo was looking for a career change that would allow him to stay in racing and provide him with more family time. Handicapping became a constant grind.
“With that job, there’s so much prepping involved and I just got tired of it,” he says. “I barely got through the job and I’m back home looking at my laptop and working on handicapping the next day. It was just too much. I have a wife and a daughter. I didn’t want to be that guy or girl who was getting photos of birthdays that you missed.”
He considered a management job in the industry, but was having a hard time making it happen. He then began talking to jockey-turned-steward Gunnar Lindberg about potentially becoming a judge. Lindberg encouraged him, because he knew all three breeds and racing was his passion.
The announcement by Woodbine Entertainment Group that its broadcaster affectionately nicknamed Porty was leaving his high-profile job to take a completely different career path surprised some. After all, he had the dream job – getting paid to talk about horse racing.
Working as a steward was something former Woodbine broadcast colleague Jim Bannon mentioned to him at one time as a career choice, but Portuondo did not have an interest in it.
“I thought he was an analytical guy,” Bannon says. “He had several ways to look at problem areas in racing when an inquiry came up. He could see the rider’s point of view because he rode horses in the morning, the betting public’s point of view because he was a bettor, and he had some analytical skills, so he could see it from three different angles. I thought that empathy was an important part of making an official. I was surprised (he left broadcasting to become a judge) because I thought he was on a good trajectory.”
When told that handicapping cards on a daily basis contributed to Portuondo’s decision to leave his broadcast job, Bannon understands. He did it for several decades for races at Woodbine and Greenwood, while also providing detailed analysis for the tracks’ racing journals. “[It] can be a thankless job in many respects,” says Bannon.
Gross says having to handicap for a TV audience can get “boring and tedious” after awhile.
Bannon says the stars aligned for Portuondo to take this job at this point in his life.
“There’s no question he’s got lots of talent and combine that with the call in the industry for diversity he looked like he was the absolute right guy at the right time,” adds Bannon.
“His credentials were excellent for that job,” says Gross. “His reputation was pretty well unassailable. I doubt whoever was making the decision was thinking ‘we’ve got to have the first black steward in Canadian history.’ I would be more inclined to think they just saw Jason was an excellent choice.”
Portuondo is believed to be the first black racing official in Ontario and possibly Canada. “If I could be a game-changer and help change the landscape, then why not?” said Portuondo. “Now I can make a difference in another way. I did so in broadcasting and now I can make a difference in horse racing.”
Tyler Durand, AGCO Senior Manager of Racing, said Portuondo was hired because he brought a lifetime of horse racing experience, not just in the different breeds, but also in different positions within the industry. “His decades of experience in observing and analyzing races already distinguish him, and when coupled with his exceptional communication and people skills, it becomes evident that he is an invaluable asset to the team,” Durand says.
Though it is early into his new career, Portuondo loves it.
“When it’s something you enjoy, you don’t look at it as work,” he says. “It’s what you want to do. I’m not trying to blow my own horn here, but I tick a lot of the boxes. I know all the (breeds), ethnic person, broadcast background and media experience. As I mentioned, a lot of the job is explaining and talking to people. You go into hearings and eventually I’ll become a hearings officer. I’ve done media things for the [AGCO] on TV for the King’s Plate, Prince of Wales and Breeders’ Stakes. If anything happens, such as a breakdown or a fatality, I have to go on and speak to the broadcasters about the protocol. Knock on wood I haven’t had to, because there weren’t any fatalities, but I’ve been there [on standby]. I’ve done a lot of things outside of racing; they also lean on me because I’m used to being in front of people and presenting.”
He still keeps active in broadcasting, co-hosting with Canadian Olympic runner Donovan Bailey on a weekly podcast about track and field called Donovan Bailey Running Things. While Portuondo enjoys it, he has no desire to return full-time to his previous work.
“I pretty much accomplished everything I could have, in my opinion,” he says. “Do I miss it? Not really.”