By Bill Finley
With the end of his NFL career right around the corner, Mike Renfro was looking for something to do after his playing days were over. That's why he bought a Louisiana-bred in 1988 named Dr. Death. It couldn't have worked out any better. Dr. Death won his first start for Renfro and would go on to win six stakes races and finish third in the 1988 GI Hollywood Derby.
“It was going to be my last season and I was looking to get into the real estate business, but real estate was horrible at the time,” he said. “People were filing for bankruptcy and interest rates were 20%. I didn't know what to do until I bought this racehorse. I found my new business and haven't looked back since.”
Renfro, a wide receiver who played for the Houston Oilers from 1978 to 1983 and for the Dallas Cowboys from 1984 to 1988, would go on to serve as a longtime executive at Lone Star Park and is currently the vice president of business development for the CJ Thoroughbreds ownership group. Lately, he has turned his attention to attracting new owners in his home state of Texas.
Texas racing has endured some tough times, but that changed prior to the 2020 racing season after the state government decided to funnel $25 million annually into the sport. Purses more than doubled at the state's top two Thoroughbred tracks, Sam Houston and Lone Star Park. Realizing that the state's breeding and racing industries had a story to tell, the Texas Thoroughbred Association launched a campaign this year to try to get new owners to invest in the sport. The campaign includes radio advertising, ads on social media platforms, a revamped website and seminars.
In Renfro, the Texas Thoroughbred Association could not have found a better person to be among those spearheading the campaign. In a football-mad state, he is still known as the sure-handed receiver who was named the Cowboys' Most Valuable Player in 1985 and whose 323 receptions accounted for 4,708 career receiving yards.
“Being a professional athlete gives you opportunity in some areas to get in the door a lot easier than the average person,” he said. “It gives you a chance to have a microphone and talk to people. More so that if you are an Average Joe, people take an interest in you. I've understood that since I was a young man just starting out in football.”
Renfro, who estimates he has gotten 100 new owners into the sport since he stopped playing football, has the type of enthusiasm for racing that is infectious.
“Racing has allowed me to have a nice career after my athletic days were over,” he said. “I love to talk about the game and to promote it. I just think it is one of the most fantastic games in the world. You watch people who are 50, 60, 70 years old and when their horse turns for home they start cheering down the lane and start acting like little kids again with all the euphoria and excitement. People who are not involved are missing out on what could be a wonderful experience in their lives.”
CJ Thoroughbreds is the stable started by Corey Johnsen, the former co-owner of Kentucky Downs. Renfro worked with Johnsen when he was the president of Lone Star Park. CJ Thoroughbreds has 40 horses in training and is aiming to win at the highest levels of the sport.
“It's like being the GM of a franchise in pro sports,” Renfro said. “We are trying to win stakes races with our horses. If they can't, we'll probably move on and trade them. It's just like you would with the guy not catching enough passes or has been dropping a few. At the end of the season you may have to trade him and move on.”
It's been more than 33 years since Renfro last played in the NFL, but some things haven't changed. He's still competing, just now it's on the racetrack and not the gridiron.
“In the end,” he said, “what we're trying to do is win the game.”