As an all-round exponent of all branches of trotting and racing, it is doubtful if Freeman Holmes has had an equal in the Dominion. In his day he rode gallopers on the flat, over hurdles and steeplechase fences, and also figured largely as a trainer and owner of what our American friends term "the runners." To this must be added the success he has achived on the trotting tracks with trotters and pacers. Nor must we forget his benefit to trotting by the importation of high-class stallions and broodmares. With the rifle and shotgun he had few superiors so it is quite evident that in Freeman Holmes we have an all-rounder who is in a class by himself.
Though this article has to do more with his trotting than his racing activities, both branches of the sport must be included to give an idea of Holmes's versatility. Away back in the early eighties, a race meeting was in progress at Ashburton. There was a shortage of jockeys and, when the hack race came up for decision anyone with the smallest pretentions to riding ability was pressed into service. Under the latter category came young Free Holmes, and so commenced a turf career that was to be both varied and colourful. On the occasion under notice it took the midget (then about 5st) all his strength to carry his dead-weight to the scale. There being a shortage of lead, a sack was requisitioned. Into this (so the story goes) were piled blacksmith's tools, lumps of iron and even stray bricks. This conglomeration was lashed to the front of the saddle almost obscuring from view the pocket-edition jockey. Despite these drawbacks, young Holmes gave a foretaste of his later ability by piloting Our John to victory.
Among those who witnessed young Free's debut was the astute judge of both horses and men, Patsy Butler, then at the zenith of a meteoric career. So impressed was the genial Irishman with the boy's display that an offer of employment followed. Thus began an association that Free Holmes still regards as the turning point in his career. One of the first horses he rode work on was that grand steeplechaser, Agent, who carried Bulter's colours to victory in three Grand Nationals. The early tuition given by Patsty and his chief horseman Tommy Lyford, undoubtely laid the foundations for Holmes's subsequent success in the saddle.
One of the proudest moments of Free's life was when, garbed in green and white hoops, he rode Tit Bits to victory in a race at Riccarton. With experience he soon took rank among the best of his profession. He won the Dunedin Champagne Stakes on Butler's erratic but brilliant Thackeray and when that great 3-year-old Manton won the 'triple crown' at Riccarton in 1888 Free had the mount on him in the NZ Cup and Canterbury Cup. At that time he could go to the scale at 6.10, so that he avoided putting up too much dead weight, Wally Clifford was given the mount on Butler's colt in the Derby. Despite the success that had come his way with Manton, Butler was soon in monetary difficulties again. To meet pressing demands all his horses were sold up and Free severed his connection with the stable.
His next employment was as trainer and jockey to the Leeston sportsman, Mr Walter Spring. At that time Leeston was a real 'up-and-coming' district - much more so than is now the case. It had it's own racecourse, and quite a number of good horses were trained there. Among the first of Free's charges were Bredalbane, Red Cross, Carronade, The Idler and Magpie. He won races on all of these, including a third in the Grand National Steeplechase on Magpie. Actually the first horse Free ever rode in a hurdle race was Erin-go-Bragh, and thereby hangs a tale. On the second day of a South Canterbury he was having a little flutter in which two pennies placed on a kip played a prominent part. The fates had not been good to him; indeed, he was what is commonly called 'stoney broke.' Just then along came genial Tommy Sheenan seeking a rider for Erin-go-Bragh in the day's hurdle race. On Sheenan making his wants known to 'the school' Holmes thought of a good way of getting some of his own back and on the spur of the moment accepted Sheenan's offer. With an advance on the riding fee Holmes went on with the game in han and was rewarded with a change of luck. During the next few hours he was in anything but a happy frame of mind, but, even though i was against his inclination, free was determined to stick to his bargain. Erin-go-Bragh did not win, but the jockey's fee enabled his rider to get home again.
A few years later Mr Spring decided to retire from racing. This left Freeman Holmes again at a loose end and which determined him to launch out as a public trainer at Riccarton. Again success came his way through the agency of Empire, Ability, Cameo and Cadet, while for Mr Victor Harris, he prepared Strathnairn, Rochester, Searbrook, Epaulet and others.
It was with the name of Liberator, however, that Free's fame was perpetuated. When attached to Butler's stable he had to look after that most brainy of all thoroughbreds, one who could mix galloping, hurdling and steeplchasing as to the manor born. Free had the mount when 'Old Lib' spreadeagled a good field in the Grand National Hurdles of 1894, carrying 12.6 and subsequently landed the Ellerslie double of Great Northern Hurdles and Steeplechase. Not long afterwards the old battler broke down so badly that he was sold for £6. To Free was entrusted the job of patching him up again, with such good results as to enable the veteran to win a few more races. On finally concluding his racing career Liberator was turned out to end his days in fitting ease and comfort. The poor old fellow was nearly blind. One evening he wandered away from his home paddock an next day was found at the foot of a cliff with a broken neck. Is it to be wondered at that Free still has a soft spot in his heart fpr 'Old Lib' whom he maintains was the best all-rounder
and most sensible racehorse ever to look though a bridle.
In the early days of the early days of the trotting sport well-bred American stallions did much to benefit the class of light-harness horses. Robert Wilkins's fine assortment of sires and broodmares laid a foundation that has stood the test of time while in later years Messrs E X LeLievre, Bob McMillan, Free Holmes and J R McKenzie and others, all added blood strains, both through stallions and broodmares. Though he has not maintained an extensive stud Holmes showed excellent judgement during his several trips to America by choosing such sires as Logan Pointer, Rey de Oro and Grattan Loyal, a trio whose influence on the breeding industry has been outstanding.
As Holmes's introduction to the racing world was of a somewhat unusual nature, so also was his entry into the ranks of light-harness enthusiasts. Among the presents he received on the occasion of his wedding, was one from that fine sportsman, Mr Graham Holmes. This took the form of a trotting pony Black Oats. This was his first experience with a light-harness horse and the success he attained with her soon found him just as keen with the trotters as he had ben with the gallopers. He also brought his ability gained with gallopers to bear on the side wheelers.
The first top-notcher to enter his stable was Stonewall Jackson whom he leased from Mr Harry Mace. This over-sized trotter was a remarkable horse for he won races in saddle and harness, some of his best performances being registered on the three furlong Lancaster Park track, generally giving what nowdays would be looked upon as impossible starts. Then came the Australian-bred Vasco, who won many important races on Canterbury tracks. One of these was gained at Ashburton which was a regular Tom Tiddler's course for the gelding and his new owner. It was on this track that Holmes won his first races on the flat, over hurdles and over country. Another coincidence in connection with the Ashburton course was that on it Free won the hurdle race on the opening day of the meeting three years in succession and had a fall each time on the second.
When fairly launched out with the trotters he was successful all alongthe line; in fact he handled winners of most of the Dominion's important races. Free is of the opinion that Great Bingen was the fastest horse he ever sat behind, but even so, he credits his little favourite Trix Pointer with being the best all-rounder. With her he won the NZ Trotting Cup, Free-For-All, National Cup and other big events. Though a slug in training, she was an altogether different proposition when raceday came round. Other winning performances to Holmes's credit are the Canterbury Park Handicap with Logan Chief, NZ Trotting Stakes with Quickfire and the Timaru Cup with Emperor. Consequent on the age limit now imposed on drivers, he is now debarred from holding the reins on race days, but his stable, situated on the Yaldhurst Road, always shelters a few light-harness horses with a galloper or two thrown in. As a reinsman Free had few superiors. He was never in a hurry till the winning post hove in sight and alway displayed fine judgement in calculating pace. His name will go down to posterity as a driver and trainer of the highest rank, and evidently he has bequeathed his ability to his three sons, Freeman Junr, Alan and Maurice.
After several successful seasons Holmes decided in 1915 to go further afield in his endeavour to find new strains of pacing and trotting blood. This took him to America where he secured Logan Pointer, Bonilene and Trix Pointer. On taking up stud duties at Riccarton, Logan Pointer was an immediate success, and, until his death in 1924, he headed the list of winning stallions on eight occasions and later became the leading sire of producing mares. Encouraged by the results of his first trip to the States, Holmes made another trip in 1922. Again his judgement was vindicated by the purchase of Rey de Oro, who proved a worthy successor to the incomparable Logan Pointer. After a short but successful turf career the son of Copa de Oro took Logan Pointer's place in his owner's stud and prior to his death in 1939, Rey de Oro was leading sire several times and later leading sire of broodmares.
Free's next venture to America was in 1930 when Grattan Loyal and Frank Worthy were purchased. Frank Worthy, who survived only four seasons at the stud, got many good horses of both gaits, and considering the comparatively few mares representing him, he put up a remarkable performance to become the leading broodmare sire in the 1847-48 season. Grattan Loyal was an outstanding sire of tough, high-class racehorses. His progeny included Gold Bar, Loyal Nurse, Dundee Sandy, Mankind, Loyal Rey, Loyal Peter, Bulldozer, Loyal Friend, Coquette, Colonel Grattan, Nell Grattan and Renown's Best. Grattan Loyal was never leading sire, but he finished a close second to Jack Potts and others on several occasions, and he sired 294 individual winners of £466,121 in stakes in the Dominion alone. He lived to the advanced age of 32, and in later years he became the leading broodmare sire. Thus, every stallion imported by Mr Holmes was at one time or another the leading sire of broodmares.
Trix Pointer, after winning 'everything in sight', made history at the stud. Her son, Wrackler, became the greatest dual-gaited performer of all time - and still is; and her numerous great descendants include other top-notchers of both gaits. Bonilene also became a cornerstone of NZ breeding, and two of her descendants, Adorian and Lookaway, won the NZ Cup. Mr Holmes also imported Estella Amos, dam of the triple NZ Cup winner Indianapolis, and whose descendants continue to include great horses of both gaits.
Free Holmes retired from race driving in 1944. He was then 72. However, a gracious act on the part of the New Brighton Trotting Club, and Free's son, Allan Holmes, saw the veteran return to the sulky in September, 1947, to drive Gold Bar in that great pacer's farewell exhibition at Addington. The 'Grand Old Man' of Dominion horsemen, and the racecourse idol whose forbears Holmes had imported several generations back certainly made a combination and an adieu par excellence.
Three of Mr Holmes's sons, Freeman, Maurice and Allan have been notable trainers and horsemen, and two grandsons, A K (Kevin) and Graham, inherit the family skills. Free Holmes in his peak years was said to have 'no peer in the sulky.' In a race he was a tough man to drive against, giving no quarter and expecting none. His sons were often reported to remark in the dressing room that if "the old man" had given them "an inch of room" they would have won. He was a tremendous 'character,' and is already a trotting legend.
Credit: F C Thomas writing in NZ Trotting Calendar 1Mar67