There is a sparkle to Finn Green's eyes. It is most noticeable when creased by his Southern gentleman smile as he sat in a Starbucks in late November recounting the two decades he spent trying to extinguish himself.
His perpetual glint reached megawatt levels Nov. 2 when the lanky bay horse Green had been trusted to help guide won North America's richest horse race. While Mucho Macho Man's nose victory over Will Take Charge in the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic was hailed as the epitome of triumph over adversity, few knew the half of what had really been overcome.
What Green has achieved alongside trainer Kathy Ritvo the past two years is his ultimate source of professional pride. As racing manager for Dean and Patti Reeves, majority owners of Mucho Macho Man, Green was at the forefront in transforming the horse into a multiple Grade I winner after setbacks that included a throat surgery, bacterial infection, viral infection and quarter crack.
Green's equine intuition has never been a problem. A fifth-generation horseman, his knack for handling high-spirted bloodstock "was part of not just my DNA, but my spirit," he said.
Something more dangerous also lurked in Green's bloodlines. Sober now for more than 20 years, he never stops being mindful and grateful of the greatest comeback he will ever orchestrate.
"Yeah, there were drinkers in my family on both sides," said the 55-year-old Green. "I've got a strong pedigree for that. But I've also got a strong pedigree for recovery."
The evidence of Green's brutally fought triumph over alcoholism was with him throughout the day of Mucho Macho Man's Classic victory.
Joining Green in the post-race celebration at Santa Anita Park were his wife of nearly nine years, Jacqueline, and his stepdaughter, Aubrey. Some 1,900 miles away in Cincinnati, Green's daughter, Mears, was overcome with what her father had just helped achieve, and she still had a catch in her throat weeks later.
Families are often among the casualties of an addict's illness — and Green's story is no exception. If wresting himself from his demons and aiding his daughter through her own exorcism go down as Green's most crucial achievements, discovering and rebuilding the relationships that are now his lifeblood are what ultimately saved his life.
"There are so many milestones in my life that have been gifts, and one of the gifts that I've been given is my relationship and my marriage with my wife, my daughter and my (step) daughter," Green said. "I believe it's not what I've done, it's what I've been given.
"You're given gifts, we're all given gifts. And I've been given a second chance to live that I really appreciate."
Throwing it all away
Mears Green carries memories that resist the passage of time. Among the earliest she can recall is the notion that her father and the Thoroughbred industry would be sorely missing out without each other.
"It was just something where I knew that that's what he did and I could never really wrap my mind around him doing anything else," she said. "And he did spend a couple of years kind of in the middle of me growing up trying to do other things and I just, I always knew that whatever else he was doing was not what he was supposed to be doing."
The grandson of former Keeneland president and co-founder Hal Price Headley, Jonathan "Finn" Green grew up on historic Greentree Stud, which was managed by his late father, Robert.
It was equine Disney World, as the Lexington native termed it, with Hall of Fame horses like Tom Fool and Arts and Letters among his companions. By age 8, he was mucking stalls. Upon his graduation from high school, Green chose the fruits of the farm over college life, raising cattle and tobacco with his brothers before enjoying quick success in the Thoroughbred commercial marketplace.
"I loved it. We had a farm called Mint Lane Farm and I started selling horses," Green said. "I broke a world record in the sales ring at Keeneland in 1983 when I sold a mare, Two Rings, for $4.5 million. I kept some really nice horses for some really nice people. John Greer, the guy who owned (Hall of Famer) Foolish Pleasure, we had horses for him. I actually sold horses for Taylor Made Farm before they started selling their own horses."
One day, Green went to lunch at a country club and had a drink during his meal. His introduction to alcohol had come at age 13 when he downed most of a fifth of Wild Turkey during an overnight venture with friends.
That particular afternoon, however, marked the first time Green had a drink during lunch hours. He didn't want his coworkers at Mint Lane to see him under the influence, and so began a pattern of letting the bottle dictate his daily life.
"I didn't want the people I worked with to see me drinking so I started not going back to the farm until later," Green said. "It started changing my life in that way. It started controlling my life and I drank that way for about 7 to 8 years."
Borrowing too much money at a time when interest rates went through the roof prompted the end of Mint Lane Farm. Still, by the age of 28 he was hired as stallion manager of heralded Spendthrift Farm with his brother Tim, who was then the farm's president.
He had money in the bank and a young daughter with his first wife, Cere, but was haunted with an inescapable feeling of self-loathing. When Green and his brother were involved in a messy firing from Spendthrift in 1986, numbing himself from reality became the routine of his waking hours.
"I got fired. And went bankrupt, and the IRS took our home," Green said. "My wife filed for divorce, and she should have. And things got worse even after that. I wasn't able at that time to live in reality."
"So my drinking went into a third phase, it went into where I drank when I was awake. And that's all I did, and I drank that way for about six years."
There is a wholeheartedness to everything Finn Green does. A sincere kindness balanced by straight-shooting talk.
Experiencing the warmth of his presence makes it hard to fathom the isolated, tormented man who drove his car into a tree in an attempt to kill himself when he was 33. He somehow walked away with barely a scrape. But in the summer of 1992, there was no getting away from the damage staring him in the face.
Each person's rock bottom takes on a different form. Green's was a Friday night when he was supposed to meet Mears at her day school for a cookout and campout.
"I stopped and had a drink and I was sitting there and thought, 'I'll go out after the cookout,'" Green said. "And I had a couple more drinks and thought, 'I'll go out later when everyone is asleep.' And I drank all night long and I never went out until the next morning."
When Green finally arrived to find Mears, the last camper left, sitting on a bale of hay in front of a barn, he saw the hurt in her face. He put her in the truck and took her home, and after she went to bed that night, he walked into his bathroom with thoughts again of killing himself.
Instead, Green said, salvation showed up in that moment. It would be the last night he would drink and the beginning a recovery that at times was more painful than the disease.
"I got driven to my knees and I said, 'You know, I don't believe in you, God, but if you're there, you gotta help me,'" Green said, his tone rising with emotion. "I went out on the porch about 10:30 that night and I sat there all night long thinking about my daughter and what I had almost done, and I haven't had a drink or a drug since.
"It was a day that my life turned and went in the other direction. It hasn't been easy. It was more painful getting sober than it was drinking, honestly, for a long time. Living through reality and not drinking was pretty painful for me."
Back in the game after stop at UK
Seven years into his sobriety, Finn Green enrolled at the University of Kentucky as a non-traditional student. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 2003 having earned the Gaines Fellowship in the Humanities as well as the prestigious A.S. Sullivan Medallion, given annually by UK to those who display exceptional love and concern for other people.
It took exceptional strength for Green to pen the topic he chose for his senior thesis. In the beginning of his freshman year, a then-15-year-old Mears revealed she had started drinking some four years earlier and was unable to stop.
His 104-page thesis detailed how Green and his ex-wife placed Mears in the "Kids Helping Kids" substance abuse program in Cincinnati, a move that "saved Mears from impending doom and possibly death, changing our lives forever," Green wrote.
Rather than striving for a finish line, an addict's recovery is something that is always tended to even when wounds are seemingly healed. Now 30 years old and working as a manager in the restaurant industry, Mears Green has her father's frankness in discussing the mending.
"It has been difficult, and there are still times when I still am upset about his absence and things that happened in the past," Mears Green said. "I've learned that forgiveness is not releasing the other person of their wrongdoing. Forgiveness, to me, is releasing the anger that you have toward them.
"It wasn't about him making up for what has happened in the past. It wasn't about going back and changing things because you can't," she continued. "It was about me not being angry at him anymore. Sometimes I feel guilty because I still struggle with it and I know there is nothing he can do about what happened in the past. You just try and move forward — and he has done everything he can to try and repair the relationship."
Throughout the tumult, Mears realized that her father couldn't be his authentic self without being around horses.
By 2005, Finn Green started buying some yearlings again and was the underbidder on Hip No. 703 at that year's Keeneland September Sale, a dark bay Street Cry filly that sold for $60,000 and whom history now knows as 2010 Horse of the Year Zenyatta.
"I loved her. I was nuts about her," Green said. "When she won her first (Grade I) Apple Blossom in 2008, I was at Keeneland that day and I decided I was going to get back in the horse business full-time."
One of Green's peers growing up was Duncan Taylor, who along with his brothers has developed Taylor Made Farm into one of the industry's leading commercial operations. After Green reached out to Taylor and the two bounced ideas between them, a position of business developer was created for him at the farm.
"He called me one day and said, 'I've got some ideas about the horse business I'd like to talk to you about,'" said Taylor, president of Taylor Made. "We started talking, and it wasn't long until he joined the team and was helping us with new client development.
"He did a good job with that, and he wasn't here long before he was offered a position where he could do a lot better for himself."
In his role with Taylor Made, Green reached out to Dean Reeves after Mucho Macho Man ran second in the 2010 Remsen Stakes. The two ended up meeting in Florida that winter where they "began a conversation that didn't end," with Reeves repeatedly asking Green to come work for him and finally getting the answer he wanted in September 2011. In addition to helping oversee the horses' training and plotting out races, Green also assists in picking out potential runners at public auction.
"My biggest thing with him is I'm just so glad he's back where he belongs," said Green's wife, Jacqueline. "As much as he searched in his personal life, he searched business-wise too. God has blessed him with an amazing talent with horses and ... it's such a blessing to see him back in it."
In working with Mucho Macho Man's trainer Ritvo, Green had someone with a similar emotional constitution. Ritvo knows a thing or two about life-threatening adversity, having undergone a heart transplant five years ago.
"Finn has been a tremendous help to us in preparing all of our horses and especially working with Kathy," Reeves said. "The tough part is getting through the times when things don't go your way. They have been great with that."
Since Green joined the Mucho Macho Man camp, the 17-hand horse — who will be returning in 2014 for his 6-year-old campaign — has notched six of his eight career wins and been off the board only once in the 12 starts since his seventh-place finish in the 2011 Belmont Stakes.
Green took the heat for Mucho Macho Man being pulled up in the Sunshine Millions Classic last January, saying the bay horse had previously demonstrated in the Belmont how uncomfortable he is running over a sealed, sloppy track. Being able to admit his mistakes is something Green sees as another milestone in his ascent out of his personal hell.
"It's become a beautiful gift for me now to be able to admit my wrongs because it gives me freedom and it keeps me out of shame," Green said. "And when I get into the shame is basically another level of my disease, my addiction."
Helping others wage the battle
In order to combat the loneliness he felt while in the throes of his addiction, Green isolated himself.
"And that's so contradictory," he deadpanned, marveling at his prior rationale.
Green is able to lay his heart on the table in detailing his story in large part because he doesn't want anyone waging a similar struggle to feel like they are in it alone. And so in between the day-to-day duties at the barn and the endless travel required to keep up with his horses, Green makes himself available to anyone looking for a path to recovery.
"Sometimes I see him just emotionally drained because he's got so many people who call him for help on a regular basis," Jacqueline Green said. "And he never turns down a speaking engagement if at all possible because he feels like he needs to do that."
In his darkest moments, what Green wanted was to prove he could be a good father. As hard as he fought to live, he relishes being fully present for every moment of those who surround him.
"Having my dad back in my life in the role that he is is ... it's something that 15 years ago I would have never thought would be possible," Mears Green said. "My mom passed away two years ago, and ... I can't imagine not having him in my life, especially with her gone.
"He's the father that I know now he always wanted to be. He couldn't do it before, not because he didn't want to — he just couldn't. Now he can and he is."
Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: horseracing.bloginky.com. Twitter: @horseracinghl.