By: Chris Lomon for Woodbine.com
It should really come as no surprise that Laura Diakun, who has found herself at ice level, field level, and courtside, is right at home trackside.
Having covered some of the biggest sporting events in Canada and the world, Diakun, an anchor for SportsCentre, as well as a host and reporter for TSN’s live sports offerings, has earned a reputation as a versatile sports journalist.
She counts World Junior Hockey Championships, the Rio 2016 Olympic Summer Games, the Pyeongchang 2018 Olympic Winter Games, IIHF Men’s and Women’s World Hockey Championships, and the Toronto Raptors, among the sports she’s covered.
You can also add horse racing co-host to the list.
On Thursday nights, you can catch Diakun in the co-host’s seat for TSN’s Racing Night Live show, a two-hour program featuring a mix of live Thoroughbred and Standardbred racing from Woodbine and Woodbine Mohawk Park, respectively.
“I’m so lucky,” said Diakun. “I remember the time I was given the opportunity to do Bet Night Live [a past Woodbine-produced horse racing television broadcast which aired twice a week on The Score]. It was a sport I was totally unfamiliar with and, at the time, the sell that my bosses at The Score gave me was, ‘Look, you’re going to go and do something different. You’re going to be challenged and you’re going to be out of your element. But, in a few years, you’re going to think it was the best crash course you’ve ever done.’
“We were doing a two-hour show, twice a week, no prompter, things changing on the fly, you’re talking and two or three people are in your ear, and you have to keep it all straight. I look back and I think, ‘If it wasn’t for that show, I wouldn’t be the broadcaster that I am today.’ It was such a great opportunity to work with people who are so passionate about the sport. To live through the people who love this sport… it’s been truly amazing to be part of it.”
Which is precisely how she describes her current role on Racing Night Live.
Alongside co-host Jason Portuondo and track-level analyst Chad Rozema (Brodie Lawson is an on-air contributor), Diakun is enjoying her second horse racing stint.
While plenty has changed from those Bet Night Live days, one thing has remained the same for Diakun.
It was something that came to mind ahead of the first airing of Racing Night Live on June 11.
“Just how much work goes into this sport, it’s truly amazing. I don’t think a lot of people realize that there are so many people behind the scenes who work long hours to make sure that everything goes off smoothly, that the horses are healthy, and that the horsepeople aren’t just there on race day. People are there when most other people are sleeping – there is just so much that goes into it. It’s not just about money. It’s about people’s time, their dedication and their love of horses. You have so much respect for what they do every single day.”
She offers up the same compliment for Portuondo and Rozema.
“I’ve always said that with my role, I don’t want to come across as an expert. I don’t know the sport to the degree others do, and I don’t want to insult anyone, including the viewers at home. We say that I’m the traffic cop. My job is to direct things to the people that know the sport. I’m so grateful for Jason and Chad. They’re great. They know so much and they are so good at delivering it. I want to keep it simple to give them the platform to show their knowledge. And that’s what people want to hear.
“At the end of the day, the people that are tuning in love racing and love making money, so those are the guys that are going to help you out the most. What’s amazing with them is that you can throw anything at them, and they are going to make you look good. It’s a great teamwork environment. They’re awesome.”
Portuondo and Rozema both have high praise for their on-air partner.
And they’re happy to share it.
“She’s always willing to learn and wants to know more about racing,” offered Portuondo. “There’s a dedication beyond just being the traffic cop of the show.”
“Laura is such a fun and easy person to work with and her ability to run with anything thrown in her direction makes her such a key component to our show.”
Diakun has come a long way in terms of her handicapping days on Bet Night Live.
Back then, her selections for each race weren’t always a bull’s-eye.
These days, Diakun has a helping hand in the palm of her hand.
“People think when you’re in sports, that you must have this inside edge to pick winners. On Bet Night, I was picking horses by literally throwing a dart at the dart board… Diakun’s Dart. What I’m doing now is turning to the Dark Horse app. I’m showing people that it does pick winners. And I probably get too excited when I pick a winner because it’s so rare.”
The veteran sports personality has plenty to be excited about – and proud of – beyond her work on Racing Night Live.
Diakun, who made her TSN debut in 2014, also worked at Global News Toronto and served as a studio host for CBC Sports’ coverage of the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games.
Her foray into the sports industry came while pursuing a law degree at the University of Toronto. She sought an internship position with The Score, which quickly led to an assignment editor position followed by a role as an on-air host for numerous sports including CIS football, hockey, and horse racing.
“I’ve been extremely lucky to be able to travel. I was at the Women’s World Cup [soccer] last year in France. I got to work the Men’s World Hockey Championships, which was also in France. I get plenty of those ‘pinch me’ moments. I’ve been very fortunate in that I haven’t been pigeonholed into one sport. I’ve done rugby, women’s hockey, horse racing – I’ve been able to do so many different things. I was supposed to go to the Olympics in Tokyo, so my Olympic dream will have to wait.”
Diakun is hoping her dream interview won’t have to wait.
“I know I should say someone in hockey because I’m a Canadian girl, but I’d love to interview Tiger Woods. I’m a huge golfer. I’ve been doing it for almost 30 years. Knowing how challenging it can be, mentally, I would love to talk to someone who dominated the sport for such a long time, and his great comeback story. It would be amazing to pick that man’s brain… and go golfing with him.”
For now, she’ll take her best swing at picking out winners and playing traffic cop.
After all, sitting trackside at Woodbine is one of the many places where she feels right at home.
“I really do. I feel very fortunate to have that association with horse racing and to see, every day, all of the passionate people who are part of it.”