10/27/2014 12:10PM

Jensen brings horse-racing industry experience to congressional run

Courtesy of Elisabeth Jensen
Elisabeth Jensen co-founded The Race for Education in 2002.

Elisabeth Jensen wants to represent the state of Kentucky in Congress. In that respect, she is not like most people. Running for public office is not in the DNA of the average citizen.

But she is like tens of thousands of people in that she works in Thoroughbred racing, loves the sport, and wants to do more for it. She knows the daily struggles of those employed in racing, the challenges of owning and breeding racehorses, and the importance of racing and its agricultural infrastructure to the economy of Kentucky, as well as to the nation.

On Nov. 4, Jensen will be on the ballot in the 6th Congressional district of Kentucky for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. If she wins, she will be one of a relatively few people ever to be directly employed in racing and serve in Congress. That would put her in select company with the likes of Sens. Stephen Sanford of New York and John Camden of Kentucky, but those two served decades ago.

There have been others with ties to racing who have served in public office, such as Brereton Jones, owner with his wife, Libby, of Airdrie Stud in Midway, Ky., who was governor of Kentucky, and former Breeders’ Cup publicity director Damon Thayer, who serves in the state senate in Kentucky. President Ronald Reagan bred some Thoroughbreds, and Nicholas F. Brady, chairman of The Jockey Club, had been secretary of the Treasury, an appointed position, and Will Farish, owner of Lane’s End, served as ambassador to Britain.

Jensen is the executive director of Lexington, Ky.-based The Race for Education, a nonprofit organization providing college financial aid and literacy training for young adults associated with racing, and the funding comes from within racing, aside from the federal funds that it also obtains.

Bill Casner, one of Jensen’s biggest supporters, had owned WinStar Farm with Kenny Troutt when he first met and hired Jensen for the fledgling operation. While she may be a neophyte in politics – this is her first run at public office – he said her drive and passion for racing will make her a great advocate for the sport in the halls of Congress.

“Elisabeth loves horses and horse racing,” Casner said. “She was a high-level rider in her youth and moved to Lexington to be in horse country after a very successful career as an international executive with Disney and a high-level clothing manufacturer [Gitano]. She has been a breeder and an owner in a racing partnership. She is fully aware of the challenges our industry faces and will be a dedicated and formidable advocate for us in Congress.

“Elisabeth is a bulldog and tougher than nails. Most of all, she is her own person, with unquestionable integrity and commitment. She will follow her own conscience in voting and will not be bullied into following strict party lines.

“She looks for ways to make things happen and accomplish her goals. She works extremely well with people and is a strong advocate. She is innovative, bright, and a hardworking mom that has been able to juggle a lot of balls effectively.”

A Hoosier by birth, Jensen has lived all over the map – from New York to California – employed in each as a high-level executive for Fortune 500 companies, managing products worth millions.

But not until 2000 did she find her bliss while vacationing along the back roads of Kentucky. There in the Bluegrass she put down roots, married, had a son, and created a life that would positively impact hundreds of others. And that is where Jensen now stakes her political claim as a candidate for the House. A Democrat, she is running on job creation and educational development, is concerned about America’s disappearing middle class, and is troubled by the staggering loan debt preventing former students from contributing to the economy.

Jensen possesses “hybrid vigor,” being first-generation American on top while tracing back to the Mayflower and War of Independence on the distaff side.

“We’ve been serving this country a long time,” she said, referencing five documented ancestors who fought the British.

A tail-end boomer born into a blue-collar family, she was infused early on with a profound work ethic. Both parents worked outside the home, as did the previous generation.

“My grandparents worked in meatpacking factories,” she said. “Grandfather never had a paid sick day his entire life. They owned a home, put a son through college, accessed the American Dream.”

Her father immigrated from Denmark and later opened a food-distribution company; her mother worked as a secretary. Jensen spent her summers working in her father’s warehouse.

She remembers excursions with her grandmother to an Amish-run used clothing store called Yoder’s.

“Thrift shops then weren’t fashionable, but my sisters and I didn’t think about that,” she said. “We’d get whatever fit – for back-to-school – then put on fashion shows for mom and dad.”

After high school, Jensen flew to the Big Apple, where she studied merchandising at Tobe Coburn before hitting the fast track to corporate success. At 27, she ran a clothing division for Gitano, and by 32, she was overseeing a $350 million apparel division for Disney Consumer Products on the West Coast. While in California, she worked on the team that launched Florida’s Animal Kingdom theme park, taking the red-eye every Sunday for 18 months from Burbank, Calif, to Orlando, a daunting schedule for anyone. Until she’d had enough.


Advocacy in action

In 2000, Jensen passed through the Bluegrass on a fateful vacation.

“It was September, and I was driving down Pigsah Pike,” she said. “The tobacco was yellow, horses were out, the grass hadn’t turned brown yet. A gorgeous, sunny day, and I simply fell in love. Fourteen years later, I’m still here.”

Jensen was ready for change. The r é sum é s she fired off included one to Kentucky owner-breeder Tracy Farmer, who needed a racing manager.

“I sent it on a whim. Never thought he’d actually hire me, but he did.”

Jensen’s job, which lasted until Farmer’s stable moved south for the winter, included filling out owners’ license applications and communicating with trainers. Soon afterward, she found work at Bill Casner and Kenny Troutt’s new WinStar Farm in Versailles, Ky.

That first year, Jensen was one of just three WinStar employees (with Doug Cauthen and Gary Bush), getting a bird’s-eye view of how a Thoroughbred operation runs. About then, Casner and Troutt began looking for meaningful ways to contribute to the broader community.

“They’re both very generous,” Jensen said. “At one point, we sat down and looked at what they were doing. They’d donated a halter to this, bought a table for that, given a thousand dollars here and there ... but didn’t feel they were really impacting anything. They challenged me to find something we could do as an organization to engage the industry in making a difference.”

Jensen consulted some of racing’s best minds to come up with a cause they could get behind, and they found one.

“We felt education wasn’t being addressed, that there might be a way to take care of our young people and possibly attract newcomers to the industry,” she said. “We developed a business plan of inviting owners to nominate racehorses and give a percentage of purses.”

“Elisabeth was an extremely overqualified and competent employee when she was at WinStar,” Casner said. “We had talked about supporting the educational efforts of a daughter of one of our employees. Elisabeth came to me with an extended idea – to help children of backside and farm workers to achieve a better life through education. I challenged her to come up with a strong, viable business plan within two weeks. Her plan was on time and excellent.

“Initially, I did that within WinStar, but it grew fast, and we moved it away two years after. It’s totally self-funded now. The money we award is money I raise every year.”

Casner said the commitment and passion she brought to the project speaks volumes about her character and ability.

“We were having lunch after she had presented the business plan for the Race for Education,” Casner said. “I asked her, ‘Elisabeth, business plans are a dime a dozen. How do I know that you have what it takes to execute and make it happen?’

“She looked at me with a fire in her eye and said in no uncertain terms, ‘I have always accomplished the goals that I have set for myself. I have administered large groups of employees for two of the largest companies in the world and exceeded the companies’ sales expectations. I could make a hell of a lot more money continuing to do what I had been doing, but I want to accomplish something far more important with my life – and that is to make a difference.’ ”

Now in its 12th year, Race for Education has given out approximately $5 million in scholarships and has assisted almost 500 students from lower-income homes down the path toward college.

As Race for Education has evolved, so, too, has its structure. Several scholarships now fall under its umbrella, including Team Valor’s Isaac Murphy for black students wanting industry careers, and the Horsemen’s Scholarship for children of backstretch and farm employees. Recipients must complete an online financial-literacy program, launched via a grant through the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services and which Jensen proudly notes was recognized by President George W. Bush’s White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

Beyond WinStar and Race for Education, Jensen is a die-hard fan of the sport of kings and a partner in the all-female syndicate “It’s All About the Girls,” which includes the Afleet Alex filly Four Inch Heels, who won her debut at Monmouth Park in a maiden special weight race.

She considers herself a political friend of racing and one who may well be needed in the halls of government in the months and years ahead.

She draws inspiration from her 10-year-old son, who attends a Title One public school, where many students come from low-income families. Diagnosed on the autism spectrum disorder with certain physical challenges, he is a trouper, her “assistant campaign manager,” the love of Jensen’s life.

“I was blessed with a very special child, and he changed my perspective on everything,” she said with a smile. “The challenges he goes through just to get out the door inspire me to make the most of every day, to be a voice for others who struggle.”

– additional reporting by Mary Simon