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Wednesday, 16 January, 2019

Noel Meade leads tributes after death of former champion jockey Joe Byrne

Joe Byrne: successful at the 1983 Cheltenham Festival
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Joe Byrne, champion jump jockey in Ireland in 1979, has died at the age of 64. 

The Navan native was one of Ireland's leading riders throughout the 1970s and provided Noel Meade with his first winner when guiding Tu Va, whom the trainer's stables in Castletown are named after, to victory in a 6f sprint at Navan in 1972. 

Byrne ended the 1979 jumps season with 48 winners, enough to secure the title, and he went on to enjoy Cheltenham Festival glory in 1983 on the Michael Cunningham-trained Churchfield Boy in the Grand Annual Chase.

Meade said: "Joe was a terrific tactical rider and a really great worker. He never missed a day's work. You could rely on him. He was with me from the very start and we had some brilliant days together."

He added: "He rode my very first winner and I remember it as though it was yesterday. It was on Tu Va in the Kentstown Handicap over six furlongs at Navan. The horse was due to carry 7-7 but Joe could claim 7lb at the time so he carried just seven stone! 

Pat Martin: felt Joe Byrne was "a breath of fresh air"

"Joe had an incredible love for racing but his second love was definitely pool. He was a very good pool player. He might not have been the very best pool player you'd have ever seen, but he always knew the players who were better than him!"

Despite battling illness, Byrne remained active in recent years and rode out at Pat Martin's Navan yard as recently as last Saturday. 

After being taken ill on Sunday, Byrne spent the early part of the week on a life support machine at Beaumont Hospital in Dublin. Byrne lost his battle on Wednesday afternoon. 

Byrne's most recent racecourse appearance in the saddle was at Bellewstown in 2011 where he partnered the Pat Martin-trained Donatis Comet in the The Arkle Memorial Statue Legends Race. The pair finished fourth to the Conor O'Dwyer-ridden Bullock Harbour. 

"Joe was a tremendous guy. He was a good friend of mine and a great fella to have around the place," Martin said. 

"He rode out for me in recent years and was even in here on Saturday to ride out. Every time he entered the yard he brought a breath of fresh air with him. It was an absolute pleasure to have him around the place and he will be sadly missed by everyone around here."

Former trainer and jockey Alan McCabe, who runs a pre-training yard in Newmarket, took to social media to pay his respects to Byrne.

McCabe wrote on Twitter: "So sad to hear about the passing of JP Byrne, my mentor and friend. I would not be where I am today if I had not had the pleasure of meeting him. My condolences to his family. May he rest in peace."

Byrne is survived by his wife Pauline, his sons Josh and Don and daughter Leanne. 

He will lie in repose in St Joseph's Chapel of Rest in Navan on Sunday from 5pm to 9pm and on Monday from 3pm. He will be removed at 6.15pm to St Mary's Church, where his funeral mass will take place at 10am on Tuesday. He will be buried in St Finian's Cemetery. Donations, if desired, to the Irish Injured Jockeys Fund.

Tactically astute and a highly effective lightweight rider

Joe Byrne was champion jump jockey in Ireland in 1979 during a period largely dominated by Frank Berry, writes Alan Sweetman.

A native of Newcastle, County Dublin, Byrne obtained early experience with Toss Taaffe. A capable and hard-working rider, he made the most of his opportunities, notably during his association with Noel Meade in the early days of the trainer's career.

While never a great stylist, he was tactically astute and had a strong, wiry frame that helped to make him a highly effective lightweight rider.

Byrne enjoyed a career highlight when completing a terrific Galway Plate/Galway Hurdle double in 1984. After partnering the Tom Bergin-trained Master Player to win the Plate at 40-1 off the 9st7lb minimum he teamed up with Bill Durkan to land the Hurdle on 8-1 chance Tara Lee. His big-race hurdle wins also include the 1980 Benson & Hedges at Fairyhouse on Going Straight for Jeremy Maxwell.

The subsequent Grand National runner-up Greasepaint was a six-year-old carrying just 9st 8lb when Byrne rode him to win the 1981 Troytown Chase for Michael Cunningham. In 1983 he won the Troytown for a second time on the Bunny Cox-trained Sicilian Answer, whom he also partnered to win the Leopardstown Chase the following year.

Byrne relished his Cheltenham Festival success on Churchfield Boy for Michael Cunningham in the 1983 Grand Annual which was three years after his involvement in bitter controversy at the festival, following a short head defeat on the Meade-trained Batista in the 1980 Triumph Hurdle won by Heighlin.

Referred to Portman Square for "excessive and improper use of the whip" – along with Tommy Ryan for his vigorous handling of Sun Alliance Hurdle winner Drumlargan – the two jockeys were banned for three months and declared "disqualified persons" for the duration. The Irish authorities ratified the suspensions but stopped sort of endorsing the "warning off" element.

Byrne started training in the late 1980s, and continued to ride. In 1991 he partnered 20-1 chance Crowded House to win Leopardstown's prestigious Denny Juvenile Hurdle for Barry Kelly.

After notable early success as a trainer in a tough economic climate, winners had become very scarce by the time he handed in his licence in 2003.

A cheerful and engaging personality, Byrne remained a popular behind-the-scenes figure. He never stopped working with horses. His skill and experience, allied to his unflagging energy and capacity for loyalty, were appreciated by many whom he assisted in the years, including Meath trainers Pat Martin and Maura McGuinness.

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Joe was a terrific tactical rider and a really great worker. He never missed a day's work

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