A horse is a horse, of course, of course. That is, of course, unless the horse is Secretariat's grandson.
And while he may lack the swift hooves of his legendary Triple-Crown-winning grandfather (or the oratory skills of Mr. Ed, for that matter), Covert Action has carved out a place for himself as official spokeshorse and mascot of the James River chapter of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation.
Covert Action is just one of the retired horses getting a second chance through the foundation's Greener Pastures Program, which trains inmates at the James River Correctional Center to care for and rehabilitate such animals that have been abandoned, retired or neglected.
On Sept. 19, Richmonders will have an opportunity to meet Covert Action and tour the barn at James River Correctional Center as part of the foundation's fourth annual fundraiser. Other stops on the self-guided tour of Goochland County stables include: Sterling Farm, which breeds ultra-rare Russian cavalry horses known as the Budyonny, Mount Bernard Farm, a racing breeding and boarding facility on the National Register of Historic Places; and the Virginia Equine Clinic at Deep Run Hunt Club.
“He's a real faithful-type horse,” says Covert Action's groom, David Hampton, convicted of grand larceny and breaking and entering in 2001, who hopes to get a job as an equine dentist after his release. “He's happier around humans than his own herd mates. He's real playful.”
Covert Action's famous grandpa — who will be honored with an eponymous, live-action Disney film coming out Oct. 8 starring Diane Lane and John Malkovich — won the Triple Crown in 1973, setting racing records that still stand today. But Covert Action wasn't made for speed. Born in 1997 at Canada's famous Windfields farm, Covert Action raced at Belmont and Saratoga, but didn't make enough to pay for his upkeep. After his short, unspectacular career ended, he wound up in the care of the foundation.
Covert Action is a permanent resident of the prison horse farm, but most of the other horses there are being rehabilitated for adoption. Of the 20 or so horses that the James River chapter has adopted out so far, some have become trail or show horses, while others have gone to therapeutic riding programs or are being kept as pets. Novelist Rita Mae Brown of Charlottesville adopted one for fox hunting.
“Thoroughbreds are fabulous athletes and they're very versatile,” says the foundation's national president, Robin Williams of Goochland, who founded the James River chapter in 2007. “They're suited for a whole lot of things in their second careers. We want to find them second homes where they can be useful and loved, because horses live a long time.”
Tickets for the foundation's Barn Tour are $25. For information, visit jamesriverhorses.org or call Marshie Davis at 804-556-4186.