As the old adage goes it is better late than never, words that trainer Ryan Potter will take on board less than a year after overcoming his battle with sepsis when carrying the ashes of his close friend Con Rutledge around with him in the Newmarket Town Plate.
Less than 12 months after making a full recovery from the life-threatening condition the 35-year-old will slip into the silks of Rutledge, who died in a road traffic accident just two days before he was scheduled to ride in the world’s oldest Flat race back in 2021.
Despite Potter’s appearance in the three-mile six furlong contest, which was first staged in 1666, coming a year later than anticipated he admits it would be ‘great’ if he could win the prestigious event on August 26th, which is being run in memory of Rutledge.
Herefordshire-based Potter said: “I moved here in 2005 and Con had been over for years (he lived in Charlton, Worcestershire) and we used to drink in The Plough at Ford and The Pheasant at Toddington together and he would often come racing with us. I knew Con really well and it was a shock when he died.
“I was meant to do the race in his memory last year but then I got sepsis on my birthday weekend, and I ended up being quite ill. I got an infection in my bloodstream, and it sat on the valves of my heart. I was in hospital for a couple of weeks so I couldn’t do it.
“I ended up having every wire possible connected to me. It was of those things that if I hadn’t gone to the hospital when I did it would have been very bad, but you try not to think about things like that.
“It took me until about October until I was right again, but I feel fine now. It would be amazing to carry Con’s ashes around in the race as I know how much he wanted to do the race as he had been looking forward to it all summer before the accident.”
Not only is Potter looking forward to doing his former friend proud but equally delighted to see his late father participate in spirit in this year’s race is his son Stephen Rutledge, who has described running the race in his memory as a ‘lovely touch’.
Rutledge said “I’m absolutely thrilled and delighted that they want to run in the race in memory of my dad. I thought it was a lovely touch. My father would have been absolutely thrilled about it as well.
“He had been at it a couple of years trying to get into the race and he was very persistent about it. He was in his early seventies when he got the all-clear medically to ride and once he knew he was in he started training hard for it.
“He was on the bike losing weight and he was giving it everything to get fitter than he was. He was in really good form. You could tell the exercise, together with the thought of riding again in a competitive race, gave him a lease of life.”
Losing a loved one is never easy and Stephen admits he still remembers the last conversation he had with his father, who was originally from Ireland, as if it was yesterday despite almost two years passing since that fateful day.
Rutledge said: “The last time I spoke to my dad was the Wednesday before the race, which was the day before he had his accident.
“He was just telling about last minute preparations about what was going on and he was just asking me whether or not I was going to Newmarket to watch the race, which I think I had said yes to. He had the horse ready, and fitness-wise he had himself ready.
“He was travelling back home about 5.30pm to 6pm on that Thursday night and it was then that he had the car accident that killed him over near Evesham. It was completely out of the blue. He was so close to riding in it yet so far.
“It was the first time I’ve had anybody very close to me die like that. It takes you a long time to get over the shock and the grief that comes with it flows for a long time. One minute your father is there the next he is not.”
Before taking up his current role Ross-on-Wye handler Potter enjoyed several spins under rules and on the point-to-point circuit as an amateur rider.
And it was the latter in which he holds fond memories of Rutledge, who was also a keen amateur boxer in his younger days, on his sole ride for him.
He said: “It is about 10 years since I’ve ridden in a point to point, but I’ve ridden in a few hunter chase races, however I only rode for Con once, but he was a real character.
“He used to turn up to point-to-point meetings and not book a jockey. He would then come into the weighing room and say, ‘right boys who wants to ride my horse’ and everyone would scatter as you wouldn’t know what the horse had done.
“He was a horseman himself and he thought if he could ride it everyone could ride it. I pulled the short straw on that occasion at Maisemore Park. We didn’t do any good, but we managed to get round.
“Con was a real old character and you don’t get them like him anymore. He always had a story to tell and he was just an all-round real good bloke. He was a very good horseman, while there wasn’t a person who he could beat him in an arm wrestle in the pub!”
Ensuring Potter makes it from start to finish in the Town Plate will be four-times hurdle winner Don Bersy, who was last sighted pulling up behind Billaway in last year’s St James’s Place Festival Hunters’ Chase at the Cheltenham Festival.
Potter said: “Don Bersy was running well at Cheltenham and as he was leading until the seventeenth fence then he gave himself a bit of a bang.
“In his point-to-points when he started he won but he was prone to being a bit stubborn at the start. Hopefully it won’t be a problem in the Town Plate as there is only a few runners. He stays and gallops all day, and it doesn’t matter what way you ride him.
“You can take your time on him, or you can let him pop out in front. It doesn’t matter too much. He is a bit keen, but apart from that he is a very straightforward ride.
“I’m looking forward to it and it will be good fun. My family are over from Ireland and we have a bus load of us going. It will be a real good day out.”