Mr. Lickety makes it work again at Aiken

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Over the years, the Aiken Steeplechase has created trends, which have turned into traditions. Decades ago, Hall of Famer Burley Cocks would come out swinging, winning everything with his oat-devouring, muscle-bound bluebloods from the engine rooms of Valentine, Mellon, Murdoch and other luminaries. You could set your clock to it.

These days, the Aiken winners have new names, but old ways.

Cocks would have appreciated Mr. Lickety. Check Mark Stables’ 7-year-old won a starter on the sport’s opening day in 2015. He won a ratings race in 2016. And, you guessed it, he won again Saturday, taking a ratings race to make it three wins in three years around the tight South Carolina oval. Trained by Richard Valentine and ridden by Jack Doyle, the bay son of Powerscourt ran and jumped like he had read the script (read it, hell, he wrote it) scoring comfortably by 2 lengths over Longing To Travel and Devil’s Wrangler.

Doyle, who guided Mr. Lickety to win at Aiken last year as well, made a winning return after breaking his pelvis in September. For jockey and horse, it was business as usual.

 “It’s good to be back, very good to be back, and great to be back with a winner,” Doyle said. “For whatever reason he loves it around Aiken, I rode him there and at Queen’s Cup last year, he didn’t raise a gallop at Queen’s Cup, but he seems to come to life at Aiken, maybe it’s just sharp and quick and it keeps him interested. It was very straightforward, he traveled well, got a nice lead and he’s gone and done it well. Pretty much the same as last year, sat second or third, took it up after jumping the second-to-last, he’s getting a bit clever now, he wasn’t doing much in front, he’s a cool, little horse.”

Previously trained by Lilith Boucher, Ted Gregory and Winky Cocks, Mr. Lickety transferred to Valentine for the 2016 season, winning the Aiken opener, before finishing fifth at Queen’s Cup and third at the Aiken Fall meet.

As for Doyle, a long road had come to an end and, in a way, a beginning, with the triumph. The Irish native was on his way to a championship last year when he fell at Belmont Park and missed the entire fall season. Literally screwed back together, Doyle hobbled on crutches for most of the fall, but was back riding for his father in Ireland by the end of December and rode three races before returning to his full-time job for Elizabeth Voss in Monkton, Md.

“It was straightforward, more straightforward than we thought,” Doyle said. “The worst bit was sitting around waiting to get back going. Since I started back riding out, I’ve had no problems, no pain, I’m back as good as ever.”

As for winning, well, it felt as good as ever.

“I suppose it’s just a relief to get a winner,” Doyle said. “There’s no better proof than winning races, there’s a little bit of pressure on you to show that you’re back right, after taking a fall like that, it’s just a relief to get it out of the way.”

• Jockey Ross Geraghty continued his own Aiken streak, taking the opening jump race for the third year in a row. This year, Any Given Royal registered a maiden win for Geraghty, trainer Ricky Hendriks and Hendriks’ mother Wendy. The trio doubled on the card, taking the second division of the maiden with Surprising Soul.

“Good start,” Geraghty said. “Ricky has them ready. I’ve been up and down to his place once or twice a week, schooling, he picked out his races a long way back, he knows where he wants to go with them. Ricky and I work well together.”

Hendriks, who guided many of Cocks’ burners at Aiken, emulated the Hall of Famer with an early-season double.

Any Given Royal won more than $350,000 while winning six races on the flat for trainer Brian Lynch. The son of Any Given Saturday made his debut for Hendriks in the fall, finishing seventh on the flat at the International Gold Cup and sixth in his hurdle debut at the Colonial Cup. Put away for the winter, he overcame adversity to score by 3 1/2 lengths over Aflutter and Last Farewell.

“We know off his flat form he has ability,” Geraghty said. “He jumped great around Camden, we were just trying to settle him, get him to rate. That was the plan, just rate him, but (Bugle Boys) went through the wing at the second, then my lad got keen when the pace steadied up. I let him go in front, the loose horse raced with me, got me going too fast, I had to stay pretty wide. I got him to relax going down the back, I let him pop those two, a horse joined me each side, then I got pushed into the second beacon and got shuffled back into fourth, I bided my time and waited, by the time we turned into the stretch, he got back on the bridle, picked up at the last, and he won really well.”

As for Surprising Soul, it was much simpler and more predictable.

The Ontario-bred son of Perfect Soul made three starts over hurdles last fall, finishing second twice and fourth once. Holding an experience edge (there were four first-time starters in the race), Surprising Soul stalked Jesse O before taking over with ease to draw off by 23 1/4 lengths. Jesse O finished second with Extensible third (both horses were offered in the steeplechase sale last spring).

“He’s a very nice horse. He’s done well over the winter, he surprised me how easy he won. I was very, very impressed with him. He can be anything,” Geraghty said. “What surprised me the most is how easy he traveled over 2 miles, he’s a bigger, rangier horse than in the fall. Everything’s just come right. Looking back, it was better he didn’t break his maiden in the fall. He never came off the bridle, I just sat there, he galloped out in hand. He really impressed me.”

Geraghty, Rosbrian Farm and Hendriks teamed up to win a training flat race with British-bred Winter House.

“He’s a promising sort,” Geraghty said.

• Desmond Fogarty pulled the most prolific move in racing, dropping Indy’s Legacy from maiden company to maiden-claiming company. The well-bred son of A.P. Indy did the rest, stomping eight rivals. Owned by Thistledown Farm, the 6-year-old drew off to score by 9 1/2 lengths over first-time starter Change Maker and 10-year-old veteran A Zoo Society. Willie McCarthy guided the winner who had tried straight maidens on five previous occasions, mustering a fifth at Camden in the fall. A $600,000 yearling, he went 0-for-2 for trainer Pat Byrne on the flat in 2014.