A twice-convicted Virginia man who once cried in his cell with despair, found his path to the American Dream—self-respect, love, a thriving business—soon after he seized hold of a beautiful Thoroughbred.
And that horse, a grandson of the great Secretariat, helped the inmate right his own ship and sail toward a better day.
The life transformation began for two-time offender Tamio Holmes of Louisiana the day he stepped up to the horse trailer bearing bay racehorse Covert Action.
The door opened. Covert walked down the ramp. And Holmes stepped up to take hold of the lead rope and walk with the sweet-tempered animal to the red clapboard barn at the James River Work Center. Within its careworn walls, the horse would live a long, healthy retirement, and help to kick-start Holmes’ future as well as the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation’s (TRF) signature Second Chances program for prisoners and racehorses.
“I remember when somebody first told me they were bringing horses to James River, and I thought, ‘I’m not going to fool with some rich person’s horses while I’m in prison,’ ” Holmes recalls. “But some guys talked me into it … and I went down for an interview” and soon became a founding participant in a pioneering program teaching inmates life skills while participating in vocational training providing care to retired racehorses.
“When the horses first arrived, it was pretty amazing. We were all impatiently waiting … they’d bring one off the trailer and then go around get another,” Holmes says. “I was one of the first ones to step forward, and I grabbed the most amazing horse of all of them. I wound up grabbing Covert Action, the grandson of Secretariat!”
For a young man who grew up in a “beat down little house” in the middle of a backyard Louisiana farm, the proximity to greatness inspired him. “I trained him to follow me around like a dog! If I ran, he ran; if I trotted, he trotted. And he always shook me down looking for peppermints in my pocket. He was an amazing horse!”
After working with Covert Action for a while, a barn farrier began mentoring Holmes in hoof health care. “He said I was a natural,” he says. Holmes studied a $200 textbook a TRF supporter had purchased for him, and practiced trimming and caring for all the horses in the James River Work House herd. “People thought a professional farrier was coming in to do the horses,” he adds.
When Holmes was released from prison in May 2010, after serving three years, he recalls thinking, “You know what Tamio, this is your new career!”
With the help and generosity of Anne Tucker, an original founder of the TRF’s program at James River, Holmes was provided accommodations on Tucker’s Virginia farm until he got on his feet, and was taken under the wing of Dr. Tom Newton, a Goochland, Va. veterinarian and horse breeder.
“Tom got me to come to his farm with him, where I started shoeing his horses,” he says. “After a while, word spread, and other started asking me to shoe their horses.”
Today, Holmes is the proud owner of his own business, Tamio Holmes Farrier, working hard, and preparing to get married later this month.
“Horses made a huge difference for me, and my life,” he says. “By the time I met Covert Action, I’d already been in prison once. I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t met up with the horses … when I first got to prison, I didn’t eat and cried every night. After I grabbed Covert Action’s halter … it’s like we crossed a bridge … and I’m so grateful that I thank God for sending me on this path.” — This story was originally published on Jan. 7, 2016.