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Chemistry, Charisma & Trying to Cash Tickets

Trot Feature - Jason Portuondo and Chad Rozema

On top of their basic duty of handicapping the card for customers each night, Woodbine Mohawk Park’s dynamic duo of Jason Portuondo and Chad Rozema like to entertain - and they’re good at it.

But their on-air partnership has become a true off-air friendship as well, and that’s probably the number one reason the Mohawk in-house show is so successful. By Rob Longley

WE HAVE NO WAY OF KNOWING THIS FOR CERTAIN, but there's a reasonable shot that while on a recent vacation together to Punta Cana, Jason Portuondo and Chad Rozema spent some conversation time on the Pick 4.

And we're not talking about the happy hour menu at the swim up bar in the middle of the resort, either.

Yes, the Woodbine Entertainment Group standardbred analysts vacationed together, no doubt a welcome relief from one of the harshest Southern Ontario winters in recent memory.

We may be joking about the Pick 4 chatter, but suffice to say that the chemistry that is evident when they breeze through their nightly handicapping show is at least as strong when they are off air. The chumminess you see through whatever screen you catch them on, continues when the camera is off as well, a big reason standardbred bettors and fans are so well served by their work.

"We've both worked with a lot of great people here throughout the years, but I've never had this kind of chemistry," Rozema said moments before the pair went to air to analyze and walk fans through a recent Monday night card at Mohawk.

Part schtick, part comedy and most importantly heavy on handicapping, the dynamic duo have been together full-time for a little more than a year now and it's been a solid on-air exactor.

Both have roots in the sport and an affinity for picking winners and both have a flair for bringing some life to the airwaves.

"It's that whole edu-tainment thing," says Portuondo, a face and voice familiar to race fans of both WEG breeds for going on two decades now, by way of explaining their approach. "I think we walk the line and do a good job of it.

"We're still providing critical information but we're doing it in a fun way. This isn't news. This is an escape. But then again, it's people's money so we don't want to make too much of a joke out of it. We want people to have respect for us."

On this night, the show starts off with their standard Monday night hand shake and dives quickly into the highlights of the card that awaits. It may be a typical dog-days of winter Monday nighter, a program heavy on cheaper races and trotters, but the presentation is lively. Just as there is money to be made on a Metro Stakes final, so too is there earning potential on a $20,000 claimer - and sometimes more.

By design, the twosome are invested in helping viewers build their bankrolls. But if they can make the audience smile and perhaps stick around for a race or two longer than they might otherwise, all the better for the bettors.

"Though we come across as fun-type people, we handicap seriously," Portuondo said. "We're not necessary playing every race, but we handicap as if it's our money out there. We really focus in on that but we do it in a fun, light way.

"I know myself if I'm watching something, I don't want to watch people who are robotic or that just aren't entertaining, a flatline throughout. So why not have a little bit of fun? To be honest with you, I think people trust you more that way. You come across as more real and that's the one thing that comes from our chemistry and our relationship. What you see on the air here, that's exactly the same as we were in Punta Cana."

Portuondo and Rozema take the intellectual exercise of handicapping seriously, both on the air and off. When the gate folds and the live shot switches from the studio to the race call, it's not as if they stop their repartee.

In fact, the discussion gets lively when Race 1 gets under way and there is surprise from both that one of the trotters on the outside left more aggressively than they expected. The mic is off and all bets are on as the two watch the race unfold.

"We definitely have a friendly competition - he tries to beat me, I try to beat him," Portuondo said of the added juice each brings to the nightly selection process. "We often pick against each other. It's not a love-in. We want to see each other do well but there's also an inside competition."

With that friendly competition comes more of their personality and commentary that the bettor at home, in the grandstand or at a teletheater anywhere in North America can relate to.

"Interesting that you don't want to use the winner," Rozema deadpans shortly after his partner's analysis and selection for the second race.

"There's a lot of chirping going on," Rozema says later, adding that the two often talk by phone as frequently as 20 times a day before a show.

Meanwhile, when it comes to the type of horses they are most likely to tout, the pair are definitely on the same page - it's all about mining value. If you're looking to build a show parlay off their respective selections, in other words, you're probably better off diverting your attention to the morning line or the tote board.

"Our styles are the same. I would rather not pick a favourite other than if it's something that's 2/5," Rozema reasons. "And that's because we know we're going to look silly if we don't do it because the favourite is so obvious.

"But using tonight as an example, I'm taking a bunch of shots and Jason's taking a bunch of shots. Especially with winter racing, this is when you can try to get a price, when maybe it's not as consistent with form as it is when some of the top horses come back in the spring and the summer months."

Portuondo, who admits he still loves to bet sports and races, acknowledges that it always starts and often ends with taking a stand against the obvious public choice.

"We're always trying to beat the favourite," Portuondo said. "We're very similar that way. We get more joy out of picking one winner that pays 15-20 bucks than five or six that pay $3.

"We're not about wins and losses, we're about ROI. If we have a higher return on investment, that's all I care about. We're definitely not leading the pack with wins but I'm okay with that."

The show moves along at a lively pace, keeping the viewers engaged and attempting to appeal to both the hard-core player and the $2 bettor, who might be looking for a little entertainment as a side order to his or her handicapping efforts.

And in both areas, the talented pair deliver. There are cracks about their equine choices, a one-liner or two sprinkled throughout, and there is an urge to engage the audience in the process, a feature they are always trying to grow. Fans might not be at the track, but the duo does what it can to make them feel like they are closer to the action.

One vehicle to do that is to reel them in via social media, popular tools that can be tailored to be interactive for both viewers and the hosts. Chances are if you tweet to them during the show - and it's in good taste - your thoughts will make it to air and perhaps even trigger a discussion.

"Social media is obviously a big part of what we do now," Portuondo said. "It's becoming huge. People reach out to you on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook and in that way they feel like they know you."

And it's not overstating it to point out that WEG and its standardbred fans are winners merely by having Portuondo on the crew. A talented broadcaster who spent eight years covering a variety of sports at Rogers Sportsnet, he's never lost his passion for horse racing.

Also, contrary to perception, his primary background is not on the thoroughbred side of the operation. In fact, Portuondo's introduction to racing came at Greenwood Raceway where he first worked for veteran standardbred horseman, Harold Stead.

"Funny thing is, in terms of this industry, everybody thinks of me as a thoroughbred guy," Portuondo says. "My uncle used to own horses with [Stead] and I started working for him - jogging horses, walking, grooming, whatever was needed. That was my first exposure to working with horses."

While working at Greenwood, Portuondo met Kevin Attard, whose father was a thoroughbred trainer, and that led to a switch in breeds. With his diminutive size, Portuondo was perfect for galloping horses, which he did at Woodbine as part of his duties. Along the way there were broadcasting gigs at 680 News where he worked alongside racing lover Peter Gross, at CBC Kingston, and later Sportsnet and Hamilton's CHCH TV.

Rozema's affinity for standardbreds came organically as well, growing up in Elmira, Ontario, close enough to Elmira Raceway that it quickly became a focal point of his life.

By age 10 he was working at the track, doing odd jobs until he was 17. Along the way, he got to know current Mohawk announcer Ken Middleton, whose father ran the show at Elmira.
"Ken was huge for my career, always pushing me to get into announcing," Rozema said. "When (the Slots at Racetracks program) came in the game changed. I called a couple of races at Flamboro when I was 21 and at some fair tracks, and ultimately in 2007, Ken let me know about an opening here."

Dave Naylor, who then ran the Woodbine broadcast department saw potential, and just like that Rozema was hired and on a career path that would make him one of the more visible personalities in Canadian standardbred racing.

"I told them I didn't know much about TV and they said 'it's fine, we can teach you TV but we can't teach you horse racing,'" Rozema said. "I happened to do well on television. It seemed to be a natural fit."

So too did the pairing with Portuondo, whose broadcasting prowess caught the attention of former Sportsnet producer Scott Moore, who recruited him from Woodbine for the national network back in 2002.

"It goes back to the fact that he makes me better," Rozema said. "Whether it's his handicapping or his back in TV and his experience in front of the camera… you just have to watch a guy like this and you learn to do things better."

Their show may be in-house but Portuondo and Rozema are seasoned professionals, both with experience on network television. As such, both lament the loss of Bet Night Live, the popular show that previously aired on The Score (now Sportsnet 360).

"We really miss that show because racing doesn't get as much exposure on television," Rozema said. "When we were on the air, I didn't hear as much of the great feedback as I did when it was done. I still get people coming up to me wishing it would come back. It really is tough to get viewership for this sport."

But both Portuondo and Rozema are excited about some changes to the format that will soon be part of their gig, a shift in approach that should serve punters better.

The routine of the production for years has been to make their selections a couple of days prior to race day for production and logistical purposes. Soon, they'll walk into the studio with a mandate for "live" handicapping, allowing for shifts of opinion and on-air choices depending on the conditions of the night.

"Before you go to the track, do you pick all 10 races and stick with it?" Rozema reasons. "No. The track could be playing different during the night. This driver could be hot. The wind could be picking up. The odds might affect you. There's so many different factors that can go into it.

"We're going to do live handicapping. If I have a horse that might be my top pick, if I don't like him at 4/5 I'm going to say so and go with a horse that offers much better value."

An avid sports fan (and perhaps the occasional investor on the Point Spread), Portuondo likens the current format to making a bet on a football or hockey game without all the pertinent information factored in.

"It's like betting on a sports team a week in advance and then a guy gets hurt," Portuondo said. "In a lot of ways it doesn't make sense. Another example: There are certain drivers, that if they haven't won a race by a certain point on the card, you know there's a good chance the rest of the way they are going to be (ticked) and just overdrive.

"You can factor that into your handicapping and that's not something you can do days in advance."

The twosome do their best to deploy all of the handicapping tools at their disposal, but in particular both emphasize how crucial trip handicapping is to unearthing value.

"I don't care so much if a horse won its last race but I want to find out the reason a horse didn't," Rozema says. "If you didn't win, why didn't you win? Were you stuck behind traffic? Were you parked? Were you trying to close into a slow first-half pace? That's my strategy."

And Portuondo said that extends to the regular qualifying races at Mohawk, an often overlooked aspect of the process by regular horseplayers.

"We both love to watch them and it's not always the horse that wins a qualifier that stands out, often it's the one in the back that's hidden and not trying to win," Portuondo said. "[Drivers] can do whatever they want. Some horses you can see they have a lot more to offer. If you watch what happens beyond the wire in a qualifier, that can help as well."

As the night goes on, the energy in the studio doesn't wane. There may be references to other sports mixed in, plenty of past performance video to illustrate their trip handicapping focus, and all of it packaged in as breezy and entertaining fashion as possible.

"We both agreed, and anybody who watches us regularly would too - it's so much better and enjoyable to have somebody to rely on when you are on air," Rozema said. "We have each other's back. The comments from horse people and from viewers - we get it regularly - people just enjoy it. And I think that's because we've become such great friends. That just comes off on the air as well."

In other words, Rozema and Portuondo strive for the most ideal mix of on-air sports talk there is, a style that makes the viewer feel they are sitting on the stool beside them listening in.

Even if it doesn't happen to be in Punta Cana.

This feature originally appeared in the April issue of TROT Magazine.
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