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Simple folk fancy that “sport” must be a joyous pursuit, and that a sportsman is a jovial, light-hearted, and rather innocent person. It may be useful to many parents, and perhaps to some young people, if I let them know what “sport” really means nowadays. Those who have their imaginations filled with pictures of merry red-coated riders, or of sturdy gaitered squires tramping through stubble behind their dogs, are quite welcome to their agreeable visions. The hounds of course meet in hundreds of places in winter-time, and the bold riders charge gaily across meadows and over fences. It is a splendid, exhilarating sight; and no one can find much fault with the pursuit, for it gives health to thousands. The foxes may perhaps object a little; but, if a philosopher could explain to them that, if they were not preserved for hunting purposes, they would soon be exterminated, we have no doubt that they would choose the alternative which gives them a chance. Shooting is engaged in with more enthusiasm now than ever it was before; and doubtless the gentlemen who sit in snug corners and knock down tame pheasants derive benefit–physical and moral–from the lively exercise. But the word “sport” in England does not now refer to hunting and shooting; it has a wide application, and it describes in a generic way a number of pursuits which are, to say the least, not improving to those who engage in them.

The royal sport is of course horse-racing; and about that amusement–in its present aspect–I may have something profitable to say. The advocates of racing inform us that the noble sport improves the breed of horses, and affords wholesome relaxation to men; they grow quite indignant with the narrow Puritans who talk “stuff” about demoralization, and they have numerous fine phrases referring to old England and the spirit of our fathers. All the talk concerning the improving influence of the Turf on horses and men is pernicious nonsense, and there is an end of the matter. The English thoroughbred is a beautiful creature, and it is pleasant enough to see him make his splendid rush from start to finish; amusing also is it to watch the skill of the wiry manikins who ride; the jockeys measure every second and every yard, and their cleverness in extracting the last ounce of strength from their horses is quite curious. The merest novice may enjoy the sight of the gay colours, and he cannot help feeling a thrill of excitement when the thud, thud of the hoofs sounds near him as the exquisite slender animals fly past. But the persons who take most interest in races are those who hardly know a horse from a mule. They may make a chance visit to a racecourse, but the speed and beauty of the animals do not interest them in any way; they cannot judge the skill of a rider; they have no eye for anything but money. To them a horse is merely a name; and, so far from their racing pursuits bringing them health, they prefer staying in a low club or lower public-house, where they may gamble without being obliged to trouble themselves about the nobler animals on which they bet.

The crowd on a racecourse is always a hideous spectacle. The class of men who swarm there are amongst the worst specimens of the human race, and, when a stranger has wandered among them for an hour or so, he feels as though he had been gazing at one huge, gross, distorted face. Their language is many degrees below vulgarity; in fact, their coarseness can be understood only by people who have been forced to go much amongst them–and that perhaps is fortunate. The quiet stoical aristocrats in the special enclosures are in all ways inoffensive; they gamble and gossip, but their betting is carried on with still self-restraint, and their gossip is the ordinary polished triviality of the country-house and drawing-room. But what can be said of the beings who crowd the betting-ring? They are indeed awful types of humanity, fitted to make sensitive men shudder. Their yells, their profanity, their low cunning, their noisy eagerness to pounce upon a simpleton, their infamous obscenity, all combine to make them the most loathsome collection of human beings to be found on the face of the broad earth.