The Rev Trevor Baxter, the minister of the Free Presbyterian church at Ballynahinch, could barely contain his indignation. "It's the Lord's Day. The Sabbath desecraters are the lost souls," he stormed from the relative warmth and dry beneath his umbrella at the Downpatrick race course yesterday.
The object of his ire was the teeming crowd, which was also braving the high winds and driving rain of an Ulster spring to take part in the province's first-ever Sunday race meeting. Some from among the 3,000 or so race fans, who were marking the liberalisation of Northern Ireland's betting laws, had been mocking Mr Baxter and his hymn-singing protesters, who were there to remind the punters of what they perceive to be their Sunday religious duties.
In response, one race fan shouted: "You have no right to come down here and tell us what we can and can't do. It's our right to be here. You stand here like fools. You are lost souls. Everyone is laughing at you."
The Rev Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), had been unable to join the 60 Free Presbyterians staging the protest. He had chosen to officiate at his regular Sunday service at his church in Belfast.
Ian Duff, the registrar of Downpatrick Race Club in County Down, said that the meeting was a major coup for the Northern Ireland horse racing industry. The club had long been campaigning for permission to hold races on Sundays, he said. It expects to stage four Sunday meetings every year, split between Downpatrick and the Down Royal Racecourse.
Mr Duff said: "It was a great day. We had campaigned for 10 years to get Sunday racing in Northern Ireland and at long last it has come about
"Being in the leisure industry, you really have to put on events when the public are available."
Recent legislation brought Northern Ireland into line with the rest of Britain. The House of Lords allowed on-course betting on a Sunday, paving the way for the Horse Racing Ireland organisation to grant the Downpatrick course a licence for the meeting on Mother's Day.
Jim Wells, a Democratic Unionist Party MLA for South Down who is also a Baptist, said: "It is sad to see this further desecration of the Lord's day.
"Why on earth people would want to turn out on day like today and stand in the rain and watch a couple of horses run around a track beats me."
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