STATE FARM, Va. — Tamio Holmes crouches as sweat falls to the floor of Barn 4. He bends the horse’s leg carefully. Covert Action, this 18-year-old gelding, has a bad right front knee.
“He wasn’t fast,” Holmes, 38, says as he begins filing the hoof. “But he was a good horse.”
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.
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.
The years passed, and Covert Action was sold again, moving to New Jersey and then Massachusetts, each stop — and new health problem — raising questions about his future. His right knee had been chipped early in his life and never fully healed; each race left him lame for a week or more. Eventually, he was unable to support even a casual rider’s weight.
Still, his easygoing personality won admirers, the way he liked to have his face and shoulders rubbed, how he accepted grooming without anxiety, that he seemed to prefer the company of humans.
In 2001, his owner, Ligia Morales, applied for him to be taken on by the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation in New York. He was 6, but his time was running out. She wrote: “He is too nice a horse to keep racing him or have him killed.”
Holmes waited a few months, trying to support his young family the legal way. An injury had kept him at home, and work was hard to find.
He already had served three years in prison on a drug charge, and downtown Richmond made it easy to score a few quick dollars. With a young child, he took his chances selling cocaine again.
“Just to get by,” he says now.
Adulthood had given Holmes a sharp edge. The easygoing, thoughtful youngster who grew up in Louisiana was gone, given way to a man now bitter after having moved to Virginia to find work. He developed a distrust of strangers and, after his parents cut off financial support, rejected reminders of his family. Back in Louisiana, he had spent his youth at his grandparents’ farm, interacting with horses. But that joy was gone now, buried under resentment and anger.
Less than 18 months after his release from prison in June 2001, Holmes was arrested again on drug charges in February 2003. The judge handed him up to nine years in prison.
“It’s like I’m gone — gone again,” Holmes says.
He developed a reputation of having a bad attitude. He rarely spoke to fellow inmates and seemed uninterested in outside-the-box rehabilitation programs. One man had punctured Holmes’s wall, though, and he had heard about a new program. The hours were long, but they would be spent outside, maintaining facilities for retired thoroughbreds for a cool 45 cents an hour.
Only nonviolent offenders were eligible for Greener Pastures, and applicants needed a record of good behavior and fewer than five years left on their sentences. None could be seen as an escape risk.
None of that mattered to Holmes. He told his friend he wasn’t interested. The man kept at him, eventually convincing Holmes that there would be women working at the barn. Holmes relented, signing the paperwork and interviewing with the program’s leaders. After his transfer, Holmes arrived for work, smiling because his friend had tricked him. Sure, there were women working there — only not what he’d had in mind.
“Just old ladies,” he says.
Six inmates stood near the trailer in September 2007, waiting to be assigned one of the seven horses being led down a ramp.
Off came Doctor Aloha, a four-time winner with $41,930 in race earnings, and Patti’s Storm, a chestnut mare descended from Seattle Slew. As each horse was offloaded, an inmate took its lead rope, guiding it toward the newly built stalls for check-in.
Holmes waited his turn. Each meeting was an intersection of two long and complicated journeys.
“A second chance for the horse — and for the man,” says Anne Tucker, president of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation at James River.
The inmates had spent the previous months preparing for the horses’ arrivals. A creekbed had been cleared of briars and debris, and the barn had been outfitted with stalls and a heated classroom. The inmates had studied equine anatomy, how to handle and maintain troubled or abused horses and how to trim hooves and care for injuries.
It was during this time that Holmes softened, buying into the program and interacting with other men who wanted a life beyond prison walls.
“Somebody has to take charge,” he says.
As Holmes waited, a guard pointed at him. The next horse was his. He walked toward the ramp, and a shiny brown gelding exited. Covert Action looked at Holmes and, picking up the scent of peppermint candy in Holmes’s pocket, lowered his head to find the smell. Holmes reached down and fed the horse one of the candies.
Another of the horses had bitten an inmate; others were anxious. Covert Action just stood there and sniffed.
“He was feeling me out,” Holmes says, “and I was feeling him out.”
As the days and weeks passed, man and horse spent hours together. It awakened memories Holmes had repressed. He recalled riding bareback on his grandparents’ horses and racing friends through Louisiana’s rice fields.
The program’s inmates work a 56-hour work week, and Holmes spent as many of those as possible with Covert Action. They went on walks, and Holmes fed the horse from his palm. Covert Action trusted Holmes to walk freely around him and to handle his injured leg, and Holmes taught the horse to bow on command and to walk without a lead.
“He would follow me anywhere,” Holmes says.
The others noticed the change in Holmes, whom the program began pointing to as an example, using his photograph on promotional materials.
“They get to care about something other than themselves, to nurture,” warden Diggs says. “And that’s a part of just being human.”
The months passed, most days seeming like the previous one, with the date etched in Holmes’s mind: Jan. 10, 2011. He mentally crossed off his final summer as a prisoner, then autumn and the holidays.
“You’re counting down the whole way,” he says. “Day by day.”
On his last day at Barn 4, Holmes approached Covert Action’s stall. Inmates had come and gone, some released and others reassigned, and many horses had been adopted.
That day in the barn, Holmes petted Covert Action, knowing their paths were again diverging. He says he talked to the gelding, telling the horse he had changed Holmes’s life. Holmes says now that he cried.
“The change that was coming. It was going to be something different,” he says. “Nobody understands how guys think because they’re set in this mode for so many years, and now you’re about to break it.”
Holmes was moved to a work-release program, and he again struggled to find work. He says freedom greeted him with $25,000 in debt — fines and child support from before his time in prison — and any savings had been erased. He walked to unemployment offices and libraries, trying to find a job, each time walking back disappointed.
“If every door is getting closed on me,” he says, “what do I do?”
Tucker offered him work on her horse farm, and soon Holmes called Bill Lane, a local farrier, and asked for an apprenticeship. Lane agreed, having Holmes pull shoes and slowly learn the business, his body gradually adjusting to the rigors of the job.
“It is hard, dirty and a little on the dangerous side,” Lane says. “You just have to get in there and dig.”
Lane says Holmes has missed only two work days in three years; he shakes off the frustration of ornery horses and grueling work, looking toward future rewards. Holmes, who had once found trouble in Richmond, put down roots in rural Virginia, living in a rental house on Tucker’s farm.
One day, Tucker had an idea. The prison program wanted a teacher and, perhaps more than that, a symbol. She thought first of Holmes, though his instinct pushed him to decline a return to prison, even as a free man.
“I’ve just come out of these chains,” he says, “and now it’s like I’m going back into them.”
Then he thought about it. Walking those miles months earlier, he had felt alone and desperate. Now independent, he had a chance to teach other men a different way.
“I know how it felt when I didn’t have anybody,” he says.
The men surround Holmes on a Friday morning, watching him and Covert Action together again. As always, Holmes is careful with the old gelding, and Covert Action stands there relaxed.
“I bend myself a little bit more than I bend him,” Holmes says as he works.
Holmes returns to Barn 4 every few weeks, teaching the inmates and answering questions. He says the farm pays him $50 for a few hours’ work — far less than his business with Lane, which can earn him upward of $1,000 per day.
“Believe me,” he tells them, “I didn’t always make it look easy.”
Anthieus Dixon, 37, kneels for a close look. Kevin Jones, 46, holds the lead rope.
Holmes made it out of this barn, and now he’s back only by choice. The others like the way that sounds.
“I’m looking for a career change,” says Jones, whose sentence for grand larceny expires in December 2015.
A few yards from where Covert Action is being trimmed, a wall lists the names of 35 horses adopted as pleasure horses since the program began. Tucker says Covert Action is too valuable to the program to be adopted, so he spends his days as Greener Pastures’ mascot. His life is comfortable and secure, making appearances at nearby races billed as Secretariat’s grandson. Most times, though, he just roams these acres.
“To feel as though you’re a castaway,” warden Diggs says, “and then you can relate to their experience and then you see them adopted and cared for and get another chance — don’t you think that provides hope?”
The inmates watch as Holmes, who has erased his debt and now eventually hopes to buy a house, finishes with his old friend, easing Covert Action’s right front hoof to the floor. Holmes pats him and smiles as the gelding is led back to his stall.
“They’re living a good life,” Holmes says, and that’s all any of them — man or horse — can ask for.