Freeman Wright Holmes was born on a farm near Ashburton, New Zealand, probably on 6 June 1871, the son of Henrietta Wright and her husband, Thomas Holmes, a farmer. He began his lifelong involvement with horses and racing as a five-stone 11-year-old stripling in 1882 when, due to a shortage of jockeys, he was asked to ride in a galloping event at an Ashburton race meeting. Laden with ballast to make up the required weight, he won the race. He then went into the service of the renowned trainer Patsy Butler. He rode many winners for Butler, including Manton at the 1888 New Zealand Cup.
Butler retired from training in 1891 and Holmes went to work for Walter Spring at Leeston. In the next four years he had some of his most notable successes on Liberator. Together they won the 1894 Grand National Hurdle Race and the 1895 Great Northern Hurdles and Great Northern Steeplechase. Spring retired in 1895 and Holmes set up as a trainer at Riccarton. His successes included the Auckland Cup and the New Zealand St Leger Stakes.
Holmes married Mary Theresa Webb at Christchurch on 7 October 1896. As a wedding present he was given a trotting pony, Black Oats. Successes with this horse sparked Holmes's interest in trotting. An over-sized trotter named Stonewall Jackson, leased from Henry Mace, was to be the first in a long line of pacing and trotting stars from Holmes's stables. Known as a fierce competitor who gave no quarter and expected none, Holmes was, by the early twentieth century, probably the best-known figure in New Zealand racing.
In 1915 Holmes visited the United States to select new strains of pacing and trotting stock. On this visit he acquired Logan Pointer, Trix Pointer and Bonilene; all were to exert a profound influence on the sport in New Zealand. Logan Pointer was for seven seasons New Zealand's premier standard-bred sire and later became the leading brood-mare sire. Trix Pointer gave Holmes his first New Zealand Trotting Cup win in 1919 and was the dam of a trotting and pacing champion, Wrackler. Both she and Bonilene founded separate families prolific in their production of high-class winners. In 1922 Holmes imported Rey De Oro (three times premier sire in New Zealand) and Estella Amos, who became another outstanding founder. In 1930 he imported Grattan Loyal and Frank Worthy, who both became premier brood-mare sires.
Holmes continued to drive, train and breed horses. He was New Zealand's leading trainer in the 1922–23 season. In 1936 he travelled to Perth, Western Australia, to drive Roi l'Or, New Zealand's sole entry in the inaugural Interdominion Championship carnival. When the horse was injured he drove the Tasmanian mare Evicus to win the title of grand champion. In 1944, at the age of 73, Holmes was forced to retire from race driving by a newly implemented official age restriction. He reappeared on the racetrack in 1947, driving pacing star Gold Bar, trained by his son Allan, in that horse's farewell exhibition run at Addington.
When well into his 80s Freeman Holmes returned to his first love, training a thoroughbred, Tarantella, owned by his teenaged grandson Graham Holmes. He died at Christchurch on 21 February 1967 aged 95; he claimed that whisky was the secret of his longevity. Mary Holmes had died on 5 December 1952, and Holmes was survived by four daughters and four sons.
Holmes's sons continued their father's contribution to New Zealand racing. Walter helped run the stud; Allan, Freeman and Maurice all became successful drivers, with Maurice becoming arguably New Zealand's most outstanding horseman. Holmes's grandsons, Graham and Freeman, carried the family connection with racing into a third generation.