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'A light goes out' as senior Irish jumps handicapper Noel O'Brien dies aged 57

Noel O'Brien: "A gentleman who was always there to help"
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Horse Racing Ireland chief executive Brian Kavanagh expressed sentiments shared by the wider Irish racing community when describing the death early on Tuesday of senior jumps handicapper Noel O’Brien as “a light going out in the Irish racing world”.

O’Brien, who was 57, died in St James’s Hospital in Dublin following a long illness. He had undergone surgery for oesophageal cancer in June and had been in the intensive care unit of the hospital ever since. His death came as a result of complications which followed on from the surgery.

Kavanagh said: “Noel was a wonderful ambassador for Irish racing and always had time for everyone. He was a very popular figure in a job which doesn’t always lend itself to popularity.

“He had a genuine passion for National Hunt racing and was respected by everyone. He also had a great sense of fun which endeared him to people.

“Professionally, he was always on top of his job and he did a lot of work on the Anglo-Irish Classifications with his British counterparts. He was a stalwart at Cheltenham preview nights, where his knowledge and good humour always made him an excellent panelist.”

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Turf Club chief executive Denis Egan said: “We are devastated by the news. It is heartbreaking for us all but particularly for Noel’s family.

“He fought a long and brave battle with the strength, courage and good humour that he brought to everything he did. He was a very special person, kind and generous. He was never in bad form and always looked on the bright side.

“At work he was the ultimate professional and took great pride in his work as senior National Hunt handicapper. He contributed so much to the sport of National Hunt racing.

"Many people who have contacted us to express their sympathies have described him as one of nature’s true gentlemen. I can’t add to that. Please God, he is now at peace and all his suffering is over. Our deepest condolences go to his family. He will be greatly missed.”

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From Caragh near Naas in County Kildare, O’Brien’s interest in racing developed from visits to Punchestown with his father. He joined the staff of the Turf Club, under then chief executive Cahir O’Sullivan, in 1977 before he had sat his final secondary school examinations.

He first worked in the accounts department and later in the declarations section before becoming junior handicapper under Captain Louis Magee in 1981. Nine years later he became senior handicapper for hurdle racing.

He was appointed overall senior jumps handicapper in 1995 on the retirement of Ted Kelly and had held the position ever since.

Dr Adrian McGoldrick, chief medical officer with the Turf Club, added: “Noel was one of life’s great characters and we'll all miss him. I cannot praise highly enough the wonderful care he received during his illness from Professor John Reynolds and his team at St James’s Hospital.”

O’Brien is survived by four brothers Paul, Ger, John and Joe, and five sisters Ann, Breda, Josephine, Martina and Mary, plus nieces and nephews and a large circle of relations and friends.

He will be reposing at his family home in Thomastown, Caragh from 12 noon on Wednesday, with rosary at 8pm.

The funeral mass will take place in the Church of Our Lady & St Joseph, Caragh at 10.30am on Thursday, followed by burial in Caragh Cemetery. Family flowers only please. Donations, if desired, to ICU, St James' Hospital.

Reaction from the racing world

Arthur Moore, trainer
First and foremost we’ve lost a very good friend. His death is very sad news. Noel was a lovely human being. He was a very fair handicapper who did a very good job. He was universally popular and always great company.

Willie Mullins, trainer
Noel’s passing is a big loss to Irish racing. He was a very fair man professionally and was always very good company away from the racecourse. He enjoyed life and didn’t let his job get in the way of enjoying the company of racing people.

Ruth Quinn, BHA director of international racing & racing development
This is such very sad news that Noel has finally lost this hard-fought battle. I’d known him for a long time and he was always an absolute joy to be around. We tend to use the phrase ‘larger than life’ with an easy frequency, but if there was one person for whom it was very well-designed it was certainly Noel. There was never a dull moment in his company, and gosh did he make me laugh! He had an unfaltering passion for the sport, and I shall really miss our entertaining, good-humoured and animated debates about the respective merits of various horses on either side of the Irish Sea. Noel will be so very sorely missed and the sport just won’t feel the same without him in it.

Ruth Quinn: "There was never a dull moment in his company, and gosh did he make me laugh!"

Davy Russell, jockey
The passing of Noel O’Brien is very sad news. He was a true gent.

Andrew Shaw, acting Turf Club senior jumps handicapper
I worked with Noel for 22 years and we must have spoken to each other most days of the year. As well as being a colleague he was a very special friend. We were very close, not only in terms of work, and in many ways losing him is like losing a member of my own family.

Phil Smith, BHA head of handicapping
The entire BHA handicapping team are very sad and upset to hear the news of Noel’s passing. Most of us have worked closely with Noel since 1999 when we set up the Anglo-Irish Jumps Classification. He was an amazing person, full of life and character, always positive with an infectious sense of humour. From a personal point of view Noel was one of mine and Catherine’s closest friends in racing. He came to our wedding and one of our fondest memories will be his dancing at parties. He has been a great Turf Club official and has set the highest standard on integrity, competence and accuracy.

Ruby Walsh, jockey
Noel was an absolute gentleman and a great man to socialise with. He was a wonderful man to discuss ratings and form with. He had a great knowledge of the game and his theories were always worth listening to. He always backed his own opinion and was seldom far wrong. He did a difficult job extremely well.

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He was a very popular figure in a job which doesn’t always lend itself to popularity
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