By Jake Rossen
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"I would listen to the announcer, and then I would go to our pool at the apartment complex and my friends would run around the pool and I would call the race," Allen recalls. "One day, the announcer at Rosecroft was staying at the apartment complex and was at the pool as I was doing this, and he picked the race up mid-call and took it the rest of the way. That was the most embarrassed I'd ever been through the first 10 or 12 years of my life."
Allen's mom divorced and married again, moving them to Southern California, where Paul attended high school and bumped through college before landing at the Star News. Print journalism paid the bills, but Allen wasn't giving up on an announcing career. Once his stories were filed, he would call races for an audience of one.
"I put 1,000 races down on tape and took them to him, and he told me what he liked and didn't like," Allen says. "He's still the number-one influence on me getting into horse-racing announcing."
In 1993, Allen heard that Bay Meadows Racetrack near San Francisco was auditioning for race callers, so he jumped in his red Honda Civic, drove up the coast, found track president Jack Liebau, and slapped a demo tape into his hand. Liebau summarily dismissed him.
"The next day I went back to Mr. Liebau: 'It's me again. I just really, really can't leave here until you give me this opportunity.' I played part of a race for him from my tapes and he said, 'You've got the ninth race today.'"
Allen called three races in all. Liebau sent him back to Los Angeles with an unnerving "We'll be in touch." But a few days later, Liebau contacted Allen to tell him he was a finalist for the job.
"I said, 'What does the job pay?' and he said, '$225 a day.' I said, 'I'll do it for $150 a day.' He chuckled and said, 'We'll get back to you.'"
Soon after, Allen was hired as the Bay Meadows race caller at $225 a day.
"It was a wild-ass thing to do," says Liebau, now the track president at Hollywood Park near Los Angeles. "We were looking at a lot of experienced track announcers from across the country, but I liked this kid who was trying hard and who had a lot of nerve to just come up and hand me his tapes. I'm known for taking risks, and that was one that turned out well."
ALLEN'S MOXIE SERVED him well in 1995 when a group of investors was ready to reopen Canterbury Park in Shakopee. Canterbury Park's president, Randy Sampson, recalls that the decision was made to hire Terry Wallace, an established track announcer from Oaklawn Park Race Track in Hot Springs, Arkansas, but Wallace backed out at the last minute.
Members of the Canterbury media department asked Sampson to watch simulcasts of Allen's calls (he had since moved to Golden Gate Fields in Berkeley), and an invitation to come to Minnesota quickly followed.
"Paul had such an energetic, fresh voice and face," says Sampson. "In his calls, he'd say a horse was 'more erratic than a shopping cart' or 'further behind than his car payments.' From the start, some of the serious horse players at Canterbury didn't buy into his unique style, but for us, it was a tremendous fit when you look at the young people and casual fans we were trying to attract."
Allen slid comfortably into the Canterbury job from the start, but his life outside of the booth was descending into chaos. Davenport, his jockey wife, moved with him to Minnesota, but she couldn't gain the confidence of Canterbury trainers and eventually returned to California. Soon after, they divorced.
Allen fell into a nomadic lifestyle, calling races at Canterbury between Memorial Day and Labor Day, returning to the Bay Area in the fall to call races there, and motoring to Grand Island, Nebraska, every spring to call races at Fonner Park before returning to Shakopee and starting the cycle all over again.
"There was a lot that was fun about traveling around the country, but ultimately, it was a road to nowhere quickly," he says. "I was deep in debt, had no property, no wife, no kids, and no life."
In 1997, he met Julie Guzek and KFAN program director Doug Westerman, both at Canterbury Park. The former became his wife in 1999; the latter offered him a job giving sports updates during Jesse Ventura's show.
When Ventura decided to run for governor in 1998, the station needed someone to take over his midmorning slot. Once again, Allen was the right kid in the right place with the right amount of gumption. He was teamed with Jeff Dubay, a former Twins batboy who was working as the sidekick on KFAN's morning show hosted by Bob Yates.