01/05/2012 12:31PM

2011 Eclipse Awards: St Nicholas Abbey

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The focus was on family, and rightfully so, when Joseph O’Brien, all 18 years of him, guided St Nicholas Abbey to an emphatic victory in the Emirates Airline Breeders’ Cup Turf at Churchill Downs on Nov. 5 on behalf of his 42-year-old father, Aidan.

It was the first time a father and son had teamed to win a race in the storied history of the Breeders’ Cup, and it took an outstanding horse to get them there.

After winning two group stakes in England earlier in 2011, St Nicholas Abbey won his American debut in the Breeders’ Cup Turf, earning him a nomination for the Eclipse Award as champion male turf horse.

[MORE: Complete list of 2011 Eclipse Awards finalists | Vote for Horse of the Year and win]

In 2011, St Nicholas Abbey fulfilled the promise that was expected of him following a 2009 season in which he was unbeaten in three starts in England and Ireland. That season was highlighted by a victory in the Group 1 Racing Post Trophy at Doncaster, England.

St Nicholas Abbey made one start in 2010, a sixth in the English 2000 Guineas, before being taken out of training with a muscle injury before the English Derby.

In 2011, St Nicholas Abbey made up for those setbacks. He won the Group 1 Coronation Cup at Epsom, and was third in two other stakes, including the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot, before finishing fifth as a longshot in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp on Oct. 2. He showed improvement in the weeks between the Arc de Triomphe and the BC Turf, Aidan O’Brien said at Churchill Downs.

There were five European imports in the field of nine for the Breeders’ Cup Turf. St Nicholas Abbey was the longest shot of the imports, at 6.80-1. St Nicholas Abbey was coming off a three-race losing streak, and American bettors were unfamiliar with Joseph O’Brien, who at 5 feet 11 inches had emerged as a young rider to watch in recent months.

In the Breeders’ Cup Turf, O’Brien delivered a polished ride beyond his years in the saddle.

O’Brien had St Nicholas Abbey in fifth on the backstretch and sixth on the turn. St Nicholas Abbey rallied with a wide run to reach contention in the stretch. Trailing eventual third-place finisher Brilliant Speed by a length with a furlong remaining, St Nicholas Abbey launched a decisive rally, pulling clear late to win by 2 1/4 lengths over the English invader Sea Moon. The Breeders’ Cup Turf, with a purse of $3 million, was the richest victory of St Nicholas Abbey’s career. Owned by Derrick Smith, Mrs. John Magnier, and Michael Tabor, St Nicholas Abbey was bred in Ireland by Barton Bloodstock & Villiers Syndicate.