Tony McCoy became the first jockey to be named the BBC Sports Personality Of The Year in the 57 years of the award.
At the awards ceremony, held at the LG Arena, Birmingham, the 36-year-old from Northern Ireland - also known as 'AP' - beat darts champion Phil 'The Power' Taylor and heptathlete Jessica Ennis to take the award, which was decided by a public vote.
McCoy's Grand National triumph on Don't Push It earlier this year came on his 15th attempt at the race, and he has ridden 3,383 winners. He has also suffered more than 700 falls and suffered numerous broken bones and injuries.
McCoy said: "This is an unbelievable feeling standing here in front of all these amazing people. To win this award is very surreal.
"My daughter Eve, who is three, was shouting at me when she knew I was going to be on television this evening.
"When I started off as a jockey I wanted to be champion jockey in my mind, and I have been lucky enough to be champion jockey for 15 years.
"But the Grand National is the biggest horse race in the world and everyone knows I had won all the other races and to finally achieve that... it was just an unbelievable day."
Fellow jockeys joined in the praise for McCoy, with Frankie Dettori saying: "In my lifetime I don't think we will see anything like AP."
Ruby Walsh added: "He's dominated racing like Tiger Woods dominated golf and Roger Federer dominated tennis."
A teary-eyed David Beckham, England's most capped outfield player, picked up the lifetime achievement award for his contribution to football.
The 35-year-old was presented with the trophy by Sir Bobby Charlton, who won the same award himself only two years ago, and was given a standing ovation lasting more than two minutes.
Beckham, watched by wife Victoria and sons Brooklyn, Romeo and Cruz, said: "I'm really humbled to receive an award for something I have always loved and continue to love doing.
"Football is a team game and without the team and the players' support and skill I wouldn't be here today.
"I have been lucky enough to have played for some of the great teams - Preston, Manchester United, Real Madrid, AC Milan and Los Angeles Galaxy and of course playing for England has been the highlight."
He also paid tribute to his former boss Sir Alex Ferguson, saying: "He's the best manager in football, I regard him as a father figure."
Beckham dedicated his award to British troops serving in Afghanistan - he visited Camp Bastion on a morale-raising trip in May.
Tennis star Rafael Nadal won the overseas sports personality prize - the 24-year-old won the French Open, Wimbledon and then the US Open, the last of the grand slams that the Spaniard had not won.
The Team of the Year award was won by the European Ryder Cup team for their achievement in regaining the trophy from the USA in October in such thrilling fashion at Celtic Manor.
Ryder Cup captain Colin Montgomerie said: "It's an honour for me to pick this up for 12 great, great men of golf.
"We were very fortunate and we had unsung heroes in our caddies and we want to thank every spectator who turned out in support of the European team in Wales."
Montgomerie was also named coach of the year for his Ryder Cup success, beating Blackpool manager Ian Holloway and England cricket coach Andy Flower to the award.
"It has been a fantastic year for European golf and I'm privileged to receive this award on behalf of the European Tour," said Montgomerie.
Teenage diver Tom Daley was named the BBC's young sports personality of the year for the third time.
Daley became double Commonwealth Games champion in Delhi in October, winning the 10-metre individual and 10m synchro with diving partner Max Brick.
The 16-year-old from Devon also won in 2009 and 2007.
Sir Frank Williams, the founder and manager of the Williams formula one team, was presented with the Helen Rollason Award for outstanding achievement in the face of adversity. Williams has been in a wheelchair since suffering a spinal injury in 1986.
The unsung hero award was given to Lance Haggith, 50, the president of the Bedfordshire Basketball Association for his work with coaching children.
BBC AWARD WINNERS
Sports Personality of the Year: Tony McCoy
Young Sports Personality: Tom Daley
Team of the Year: Europe's Ryder Cup team
Lifetime Achievement: David Beckham
Overseas Sports Personality: Rafael Nadal
Coach of the Year: Colin Montgomerie
Helen Rollason Award: Sir Frank Williams
Unsung Sports Hero: Lance Haggith (president of the Bedfordshire Basketball Association, for his work with coaching children)