Irish racing is in mourning after the death earlier this morning of senior National Hunt handicapper, Noel O'Brien.

The hugely popular O'Brien, a native of Caragh in Co Kildare, passed away after battling cancer for several months. He was involved in racing his entire adult life, starting out in the accounts department at the Turf Club before becoming a junior handicapper.

He continued to work as junior handicapper up until 1990, when he was promoted to senior hurdles handicapper. He became the senior handicapper in 1995 following the retirement of Ted Kelly and held that position for the rest of his life. During his illness, his assistant, Sandy Shaw, stepped up to cover for his friend and colleague.

O'Brien was an exceptionally hard-working man who always made it his business to go to the races to meet people, even though this was far from necessary for a man whose job was to give horses ratings based on form. 

"Handicapping is all about opinions. If a trainer comes to me with a problem, I’d hate just fobbing him off and I’d hope that I genuinely do look at my assessment," he said in 2011.

"One of the big reasons I am at a meeting is availability: people prefer face-to-face talk rather than a phone call a lot. Indeed, much of the time they are looking for your view on something and that can be quite flattering."

Reflecting on his love for racing, O'Brien added: "We used to get two half-days for the Punchestown Festival and I’d hitch to get there. I’d be clutching my Tote ticket as the horses thundered by. With racing, I think it’s very much a case of get them early and you have them for life."

Brian Kavanagh, CEO of Horse Racing Ireland, was among those to pay tribute. "A light has gone out in Irish racing with Noel’s passing," he said.

"He was a gentleman who always had time for people. He was passionate about National Hunt racing and popular in a job where that wouldn’t come easy.

"He was one of Irish racing’s best ambassadors and always enjoyed himself when the work was done. He is a huge loss to his family, to racing and to his wide circle of friends."

"A gentleman to his fingertips. He will be really missed in racing" - Aidan O'Brien

Trainer Gordon Elliott told RTÉ.ie that he had lost a friend. "He is a big loss to Irish racing and he was a good friend too – a fellow you'd easily have a few pints and the craic with. 

"He was a very fair handicapper to deal with; it's so hard to believe only a few months ago we were talking and then he went into hospital and he would not make it back. It's a really sad day for us all."

Aidan O'Brien echoed those sentiments, saying: "I always found him to be an incredibly special person, a gentleman to his fingertips. He will be really missed in racing. He was one of those irreplaceable people. We'd like to give his family our condolences on a very sad day."

Ruby Walsh described O'Brien as "a gentleman, a very good handicapper. He always backed his opinion, always willing to explain where and how he formed an opinion. I think he did a very difficult job extremely well. He got unbelievable pleasure out of watching eight horses in the Galway Hurdle turning in with a chance, or a wall of horses coming to the last at Leopardstown."

"Noel was a very fair man in the toughest job in racing. May he rest in peace," added Willie Mullins.

Denis Egan, Turf Club CEO, said: "We are devastated with the news. It is heartbreaking for us all but particularly for Noel’s family. Noel fought a long and brave battle with the strength, courage and good humour that he brought to everything he did. 

"He was a 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 this morning 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 to his family. He will be greatly missed."

Eddie O'Leary, brother to Gigginstown boss Michael, added: "As a handicapper he was fair and usually right; as a man he was a pure gentleman. Racing will miss him as will we."

Leo Powell, editor of the Irish Field, wrote on its website: "Noel has been an integral part of the Irish racing scene for ever, and I don’t remember a time in my career in racing that I did not know him.

"Noel was one of the most respected Irish racing officials, one of the most loved human beings, and a great person to be in company with. While he had a most professional approach to his work, off duty Noel was quite simply the best of fun."