Portuondo jumps from the backstretch to the judges’ stand

The former Woodbine broadcaster said he is relishing a chance to uphold the integrity of the game.

by Melissa Keith

When Jason Portuondo stepped away from his on-camera role at Woodbine Mohawk Park, he wasn’t stepping away from harness racing. If anything, he was becoming more invested in the sport. Tuesday, the recently-retired racing broadcaster said he was getting ready for a night at Flamboro Downs, training on the job in his new career. Portuondo is bravely trading his status as a popular and well-liked Canadian racing celebrity to take on one of the most unappreciated roles in the Ontario industry: a full-fledged Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario racing official.

The foundation is there. Portuondo’s involvement in harness racing began in his early teens, before subsequent involvement with thoroughbreds and quarter horses. It’s a fact often missed because of his 20-year involvement as a presenter at the Sovereign Awards, Canada’s top honors for thoroughbreds.

“Because of my being a Black person, and you know there aren’t a lot of Black people in harness racing, people right off the bat think of me as a thoroughbred guy,” he told HRU. “I actually started with harness horses first. I started down at Greenwood with a trainer by the name of Harold Stead. I’m dating myself there! My uncle has always owned harness horses and he’s the one that got me into racing.” Portuondo’s uncle, Maurice Bygrave, still owns harness horses.

“He’s in his early 80s. He’s still a dentist; he’s still practicing.”

Getting to Toronto’s Greenwood Raceway required dedication from the young standardbred caretaker who even today declares himself “a Mississauga person at heart.” Portuondo recalled spending weekends and summers at the downtown track, which closed in 1993. “I wasn’t even old enough to drive,” he said. “There was this lady who would pick me up and she would drive me down to the racetrack.”

His equine interests later expanded to encompass Ontario’s other two racing breeds.

“I worked with the thoroughbreds and I’ve raced quarter horses… I was actually going to become a jockey with quarter horses but that just didn’t work out. They were just a little bit too high strung for me, so I didn’t end up going through with that.”

Searching for a career path, Portuondo studied commerce at University of Toronto. “I didn’t really enjoy it,” he told HRU. “But I didn’t really know what I wanted to do.” 

He graduated from Mississauga’s Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology in 1996 with a diploma in broadcast journalism. Although he joked that it was a “back-up plan”, the experience led Portuondo back to racing, albeit in a very different position.

“A friend of mine was running the [campus] radio station and needed somebody to host a show and I said, ‘Sure, I’ll do it.’ So between broadcasting and my racing knowledge, that really helped me get the job at Woodbine in ‘99,” he told HRU. “I know there were other broadcasters who were more accomplished, more experienced than I was at the time, but I think that I got the job because of my racing knowledge, because I had worked with the harness horses and the thoroughbreds. That gave me a leg up on the competition.”

Working as a thoroughbred simulcast host, often conducting interviews from horseback, Portuondo built his reputation.

“I eventually started doing the network show,” he said. “Back then it was on SportsNet; it was also on The Score; now they’re on TSN. I ended up doing both breeds.”

He’s one of the rare commentators and handicappers fluent in all three Ontario racing breeds, which leads to an inevitable question: “To this very day, people ask me what I prefer, and I tell them the same answer: I don’t,” said Portuondo. “I love all horses equally. I enjoy harness racing – that’s where it started for me – just as much as I do sitting on top of one. So me being the size I am, I’m lucky that I can do both, because if I was a lot bigger –some of the harness drivers are bigger – they couldn’t get on a thoroughbred, right?”

After 26 years, the popular simulcast host and handicapper made the decision to leave the job he called “a perfect exacta” and start training as a judge. Racing officials Jim Bannon and Gunnar Lindberg had raised the idea with Portuondo in the past, he noted, citing his communication skills and wide-ranging knowledge of the sport.

“One of the things somebody said to me is, ‘Why would you want to leave a job where everybody loves you, to do a job where everybody’s going to hate you?’” Portuondo said. “I just figured I’ve done so much in terms of broadcasting and I don’t know what it could lead to. I figured [becoming an official] is an opportunity where I could still be involved in racing; I could have more of a say, in terms of the integrity of the game. Before, when I was doing the TV show, offering my opinion on horses and who I think could win, it was a lot of fun trying to pick winners and stuff like that. Now this is on a different level, where you’re upholding the integrity of the game: You’re enforcing rules and violations, and it can lead to more.”

Even with his background, the man known to Woodbine Mohawk Park horseplayers as “Porty” has found much to learn on his new career path.

“It’s been steep, in terms of learning the rules, learning the logistics of being an official,” he said. “The people I work with have been great; they’ve been really helpful. I think what’s really helped accelerate things is that I’ve been doing the job. I don’t have an official vote yet [on judges’ decisions] until I take my exam, which I hope to take next month. But I still have a say… They ask for my opinion. I’ve been doing the job in terms of picking horses for the test barn; calling the starter to converse with them; talking with the vet putting horses on the list.”

While Portuondo said he misses his 15-minute drives to Woodbine Mohawk Park and Woodbine Racetrack, he has no regrets about his choice to travel among Ontario racetracks as an official.

“I started out in the month of July; I was at Georgian [Downs]. That was great, kind of easing into it. Georgian is a quieter racetrack, not a lot of objections and inquiries, so not too much for me to handle,” he said. “The month of August, I was at Fort Erie and Ajax; I did get one night at Grand River splashed in there. Then this month of September, it’s been all Flamboro. Then in October, I’m back to Ajax and Fort Erie, and then November all the way to mid-December, it’s all Woodbine thoroughbred.”

No Woodbine Mohawk Park on his schedule?

“No, not yet. I don’t know what the thinking was, maybe I know too many people on that circuit, I’m not sure. But at the end of the day, I look at the job like this: If people don’t do anything wrong, if they don’t break any rules or violate any of the procedures, then there’s nothing for us to enforce, right?”

Portuondo has given thought to negative opinions about judges at racetracks. He noted that preferential treatment of star players is a concern across all sports, not just racing, and officials take care to stay unbiased:

“Yeah, I think that happens in any sport. If you’re dealing with hockey, if your name is Sidney Crosby or Connor McDavid, you’re going to get treated differently than if your name is just Joe Smith or Brian Johnson. I get it. I understand why the drivers and riders, trainers and owners might think that way, but we’re there to adjudicate. We’re there to be the referee. We don’t wear stripes, but we’re doing the same thing as any official: We’re just making the calls we see fit. We try not to look at who the driver is, the colors on the back of the rider, the colors being worn by the driver. An infraction is an infraction, right?

“Our sport’s a little bit different because, you know, in football, [officials] aren’t going to say, ‘Did you hold that guy?’ In hockey, they aren’t going to say, ‘Did you trip that player?’ They’re just going to make the call. This is a little bit of a different sport: It’s unique that we do speak to the riders and drivers, and get their opinions. Sometimes we take what they say with a grain of salt because they are friends, some of them, and they will try and stick up for one another at times. So we need to listen to what they say, but then again, we also need to go with what we’re seeing on the video.

To avoid any misperceptions, the charismatic horseman said he recently had to decline an invitation to co-host at the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame’s 2022 induction gala.

“I don’t think I can do that anymore, because now I’m going to be talking about the races that I have an effect on, and that part of my career is over,” he stated. “I’ve kind of hung up the microphone.”

Ever the communicator, Portuondo nonetheless had more to share about the current need for racing officials, what the job entails, and his enduring love of harness racing. Stay tuned.