Why Does Horse Racing Survive?

The sport's less popular and more controversial than ever. But this weekend's Breeders' Cup World Championships still attract people who love fashion, betting, and, oh yeah, the sport itself.

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ARCADIA, California—She was a refugee from Hurricane Sandy.

And when Royal Delta's hooves came down the stretch, you could hear the thumping, and within that sound you could hear the surging chorus of the crowd. The people in the infield, clutching their betting slips, took another swig on their Coors Lights and sucked down some more Dippin' Dots while Mike Smith, the brilliant jockey, rode Royal Delta to a wire-to-wire win by a length and a half. Royal Delta was the favorite to win, and most of the race-watchers seemed to be betting that way, except for the guy behind me screaming about the "Damn, No. 7 horse," which placed second.

The excitement was for Friday's Breeders' Cup $2-million Ladies' Classic, one of the signature events of the thoroughbred racing year. In case you don't follow thoroughbred racing—and who really does anymore?—the race was part of the two-day Breeders' Cup World Championships, which culminates today with the $5-million Breeders Cup Classic.

It was a good day at the track because no horse was destroyed. Because that is what has come to define the sport, along with a controversial doping ban of a drug to restrict pulmonary bleeding and stories of faded champion thoroughbreds being dumped at slaughterhouses. The very venue—the gorgeous Santa Anita Park—brought up more painful memories: Santa Anita, built in 1934 and surrounded by palm trees in the shadow of the San Gabriel Mountains, was the locale for the critically-acclaimed HBO series Luck, which was canceled earlier this year after three horses died during filming. But the horses were OK on Friday.

What isn't OK? The future of the sport. The Breeders' Cup is the Super Bowl of horse racing, which means it offers good opportunity to get an update on the sport's status. There were 34,618 people at Santa Anita on Friday (and there will probably be more than 55,000 today), and they look to be trending old. Other than a nursing facility in Miami, there isn't a place in the world with more square feet of fedoras, cigars, and women in St. John's suits. These people speak an arcane, seemingly dying language of exactas, Beyer numbers, furlongs, and the elusive Pick Six. Even the press box seemed like a throwback to another, less-judgmental era: There is a betting window within it, which the reporters compulsively frequent.

Other than aging fanatics, I am told the only people keeping this sport alive in the United States are women with an interest in fashion. That's one of the reasons why NBC continues to broadcast the sport with occasional verve. During the Kentucky Derby there were so many segments on exotic hats and interviewers asking questions on the lines of "What designer are you wearing?" that it felt less like a major sporting than one of those award-ceremony red carpet shows.

Down among the horse players, the people who scream at the jockeys as they leave the paddock and go home a little poorer, it is more about the sport—and gambling addiction—rather than fashion. But these are a rare breed. Not a lot of Americans really understand horses anymore.

Then again, it's easy to write obituaries of various traditions—it's a lazy columnist's staple to write about the demise of boxing, for example. But these marginal sports do go on. When you get down to it, it's the beauty of speed, the athleticism, that makes it compelling. A top thoroughbred horse is beautiful to witness in person.

As twilight approached, not long after Royal Delta won on Friday, Bill Mott, the trainer of the Ladies Classic winner, said he was relieved to have escaped from the torrential weather of the East Coast with his horse and to do something so "spectacular." She "ran them off their feet," he said.