One of the best parts of the Breeders' Cup World Championships is the fact it gives Americans the chance to see champions from around the world in the flesh. Without it, it is debatable if some massively popular runners -- think of Ouija Board or Goldikova -- would have crossed the pond.
As a result, foreigners that run well tend to work their way into the hearts of the American racing public. In 2011, that horse was St Nicholas Abbey, who won the Breeders' Cup Turf.
European runners winning the Turf is the norm, so his victory in and of itself wasn't that surprising. What made it especially memorable was the jockey on his back. When St Nicholas Abbey crossed the wire in front, Joseph O'Brien became the youngest jockey to ever win a Breeders' Cup race.
Joseph was 18 years, 5 months at the time, surpassing Fernando Jara, who won the 2006 Classic with Invasor when he was 18 years, 10 months.
Even better than his age, though, was the fact that Joseph's father, Aidan O'Brien, trained St Nicholas Abbey. The world loves a good father-son sports tale, and this was no different. There were smiles all around as father met son after the race.
During his career as a racehorse, St Nicholas Abbey rarely took a misstep. He was a Group/Grade 1 winner four of the five years he raced, became the highest money earner of all time in Europe, and due to his globetrotting ways, he built up quite a fan base.
It is partially because of that fan base that the public has been given incredible access to a world that is usually not so open. Because this summer, something went horribly, horribly wrong for St Nick.
In a sport where champion 2-year-olds often do not go on to be top older horses, St Nicholas Abbey was an exception to the rule. Considering his success at 2 and 4 (he raced only once at 3), it would not have been unusual for St Nicholas Abbey to retire to stud. But he came back at 5 and 6 and was just as successful. In March, he added the lucrative Dubai Sheema Classic to his record. The race is worth $5 million.
St Nicholas Abbey followed that victory by taking the Group 1 Coronation Cup in England and looked to be better than ever. Then, in July, far away from the crowds who had cheered him home for years, his career came to a swift and unexpected end.
The talented runner has been campaigned by Coolmore his entire career, and was out for routine exercise at Ballydoyle, the operation's training facility. It was there that he suffered a career-ending, and very possibly a life-ending, injury.
Although usually known for preferring privacy over press coverage, the powers that be at Coolmore immediately began keeping the world up to date on what was going on with the champion.
One of the initial press releases read in part:
"On July 23rd St Nicholas Abbey presented to Fethard Equine Hospital for evaluation and surgical correction of a complex fracture to the right fore pastern which occurred while exercising at Ballydoyle.
The limb had been promptly and properly stabilized in a thick padded splint bandage on the gallops at Ballydoyle and St Nicholas Abbey was referred immediately to Fethard Equine Hospital in a specialized equine ambulance. These early interventions are of exceptional importance and can be lifesaving.
Radiographic examination revealed multiple fractures of both the proximal and middle phalange of the right front limb which involved both the fetlock and proximal interphalangeal joints.
In St Nicholas Abbey's case we can see that the proximal and middle phalanges are fractured in many pieces involving both the fetlock and proximal interphalangeal joints. In an effort to save his life the bones had to be reconstructed with screws and bone plates."
Or in plain English, the horse was hurt and hurt badly, but no expense was to be spared in trying to save him. In fact, Dr. Dean Richardson, the chief of large animal surgery at Penn Vet's New Bolton Center, was one of the vets flown in to work on the champion. Dr. Richardson is best known for his work with ill-fated Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro.
Over the next days, weeks and months, St Nicholas Abbey was given the best of care. Issues arose, he overcame them. Every update mentioned his sound mind and willing spirit. And Coolmore continued to keep fans up to date on his condition through photos, video and social media.
Time passed and with it, hope got stronger and stronger that St Nicholas Abbey would not only recover but would be able to go on and have a stallion career. This piece was originally intended to showcase the advances in veterinary medicine and the amount of care that can go into saving a horse.
While working on it, bad news was sent my way. On Oct. 23, it was announced that St Nicholas Abbey had taken a turn. And it was the one thing everyone had been most worried about: laminitis.
With one paragraph, all the hope that had been built over the passing months was no longer on solid ground.
"St Nicholas Abbey has suffered a setback over the last 24 hours having developed mild laminitic changes in the left fore. This is disappointing as he is now weight bearing and walking well on the operated [fractured] leg which has healed amazingly well to date."
As always the update ended with a note that the horse maintains a good appetite and a remarkably strong spirit.
Consultations between some of the world's leading equine veterinarians have resumed. No one knows what the future will hold.
Coolmore will be back at the Breeders' Cup this year with a formidable contingent, as always. This time, though, Joseph O'Brien will be aboard only Declaration of War in the Classic. For all of his talent, the young jockey is not built for the career he has chosen. He can't make weight in any of the other races.
Across an ocean, a team of incredibly talented veterinarians will be working on St Nicholas Abbey, gifted with an ownership that has given them a blank check and a horse that has willingly fought for victory alongside of them every step of the way.
Just as he did on the track. Fingers crossed it will be enough.
Amanda Duckworth is a freelance journalist who lives in Lexington, Ky. Among her other duties, she is an editor for Gallop Magazine. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.