Six years ago, Holmes and Covert Action each found their way to the James River Work Center, a prison farm in rural Goochland County. Holmes was an inmate passing a long sentence, and Covert Action, a grandson of Secretariat, was here because that knee had made him worthless to those who expected him to win races. Now a free man, Holmes returns to the farm every few weeks, teaching other inmates the farrier skills he learned here — and talking about how life can bring you to unexpected places.
“Starting out,” Holmes tells the inmates as he works, “I wasn’t no different than you was.”
On these 100 acres, outlined by razor wire and patrolled by guards, eight inmates and 22 retired thoroughbred racehorses coexist in the Greener Pastures program. For now, each man’s life is defined by crime and a countdown toward freedom; each horse was bred and trained to thunder around a track, before age or health or cost made them irrelevant.
“These animals, too, were cast away,” said Harris Diggs, warden at Deep Meadow Correctional Center, which oversees the farm.
On this Friday morning, Holmes says he and Covert Action grew to understand each other. Holmes hadn’t fit in the plans his family had for him, and despite the young gelding’s bloodline, his body never seemed fit for racing. Somehow they each made their way here, two souls lost in their own worlds, to this cordoned-off tract in central Virginia.
‘Too nice a horse’
Michael Moran called around, looking for a new home for a horse no good for racing. In 1996, Moran paid $47,000 for a dark bay gelding foaled in Canada and carrying an impressive pedigree. Covert Action’s sire, Silver Deputy, had produced a generation of winners, including the Hall of Fame mare Silverbulletday. But the biggest name was on his mother’s side: Secretariat, who in 1973 became the first horse in 25 years to win racing’s Triple Crown, sweeping the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness and Belmont Stakes.
But things were different for Covert Action. Recovery took longer than expected, and besides a few minor victories, he rarely showed the ability that ran in his blood. Still, there were a few redeeming qualities.
“I don’t know that he had much physical talent,” Moran says now, “but he was a nice horse to be around.”
Moran says a partner at his Philadelphia area farm preferred to continue racing Covert Action even at the expense of his health. Moran says he refused. The partners split over the decision, Moran says, but the cost of food and maintenance made Covert Action expensive.
He was sold at Saratoga Race Course in New York, Moran says, and he started 26 career races but never won big. When a gelding is unable to repay an owner’s investment with prize money, his fate becomes murky. Some horses continually change hands; others are neglected, starved or killed.