Natalie Zak is not a betting woman, but she plays one on TV.
The Thornhill, Ont., native, who introduces herself on air as Nat Zak, is the host of Bet Night Live. On the show, broadcast by the Score Television Network, she teaches people at a horse racetrack how to bet.
“It’s an interactive betting show based on four live races where we encourage people to play along on an online contest,” she said. “The top five people qualify to a final show where we give a grand prize of $10,000 and a luxury trip to Vegas.”
On the twice-weekly program, she approaches a random person at Woodbine Racetrack and gives her or him money and advice on how to place bets.
Though she’s a betting expert these days, Zak didn’t know much about horse racing before joining Woodbine Entertaiment and Gaming in 2006. Instead, she said she has developed her knowledge along the way.
“It’s just honing my skills, learning as I go,” she said. “If you can tell a story on horse racing, you can tell a story on anything.”
After graduating from Ryerson University’s radio and television arts program, Zak found a job as a server at Wegz Stadium Bar in Vaughan, Ont., owned by Woodbine Entertainment, which also operates Woodbine Racetrack.
From there, she worked her way up the ranks at the company to her current position as host and segment producer of Bet Night Live.
“I never thought I’d end up in sports. I always thought I’d end up in entertainment,” she said.
However, entertainment does play a huge part in her role on the show. She has interviewed many hockey players and celebrities, including Charlie Sheen and Anil Kapoor, all of whom discussed topics not necessarily related to horse racing.
The interview with Kapoor, known for his role as the game-show host in Slumdog Millionaire, focused on his film roles, as well as Indian dancing.
“He somehow made me dance,” she said.
Her interviews are done in a “rapid-fire” style, meaning she throws questions at her interviewees very quickly, expecting fast, short answers. For example, before interviewing a hockey player, she planned to ask him what’s the best thing about being a pro athlete, and whether he is a betting man.
Zak called the horse-racing industry very interesting, with depth beyond what the average viewer would notice. “It’s like a whole other world,” she said. “Someone could come to the racetrack and watch a horse race, and not realize so much happens behind the scenes.”
Before university, Zak said she had no idea her career path would lead to the races. She was intrigued by the entertainment industry, but her high school guidance counsellor discouraged her from applying to Ryerson’s radio and TV arts program, telling her it was too competitive.
Still, she knew she wanted to find a program more specific than a general BA, so she persevered and made it into the course.
So far, she said she has had a great time doing the work at Woodbine Entertainment, which has given her an opportunity to meet really interesting people.
“Everybody has a unique story,” she said. For example, she has interviewed someone who was kicked in the face by a horse, and she worked on another story about a man who had just bought a horse. He was so excited about it that he promised to take the whole stable of more than 40 people to Vegas if he won a million-dollar race. Unfortunately for them, he didn’t win.
However, these are the kinds of angles Zak looks for – often having to do more with the human-interest side of the story than horse racing itself.
That’s why, despite having fallen into her role in the industry, beginning her job with little knowledge on the sport, she’s been so successful. Ultimately, it comes down to finding the human side of the story.
Bet Night Live airs on The Score on Sundays at 3 p.m. and Mondays at 7 p.m.