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-- Rich Fisher/USTA Senior Correspondent

MANALAPAN, NJ -- July 13, 2016 -- Round Two in what is hoped to be a season-long series of pacing showdowns is set to take place at the Meadowlands Racetrack on Saturday, and at least one owner involved with the principal characters will cherish every minute of it. He likely won’t be alone.

Highlighting the $471,800 William R. Haughton Memorial for older male pacers is another much-anticipated battle between 5-year-old Always B Miki and 4-year-olds Wiggle It Jiggleit and Freaky Feet Pete. The trio will have its second head-to-head-to-head meeting in what is the most talked-about rivalry in harness racing in years.

Always B Miki won the first match-up at the July 2 Ben Franklin Pace at The Downs at Mohegan Sun Pocono, beating Freaky Feet Pete by three-quarters of a length in a world-record-equaling 1:47. Wiggle It Jiggleit, the 2015 Horse of the Year, took third.

Last weekend, Wiggle It Jiggleit beat Freaky Feet Pete at the Graduate Series championship at the Big M, but the race was only for 4-year-olds so Always B Miki wasn’t eligible to compete.

“Before the Ben Franklin, I can’t recall seeing as much dialogue on a race in a very, very long time,” said Bob Boni, one of Always B Miki’s owners. “There was a real buzz all week about that. It started out this week with similar sentiments. Everyone is wondering what’s going to happen in the race?

“I think it’s drawn a tremendous amount of attention. It’s on a great card, a lot of people are going to see it. We’ve got a number of other times when we’re scheduled to hook up, potentially, and I think it will be something that will continue to grow because it’s a very talented field of older horses.”

It is something that Boni and his fellow owners (Bluewood Stable, Roll The Dice Stable and Christina Takter) do not take for granted.

“We’re very fortunate and very appreciative,” Boni said. “Those are the words I constantly use. I’ve been very blessed that I’ve had some pretty good horses over the years. Miki’s the latest right now and he’s about as good as anybody’s horse. It’s a great thrill, but you can’t race horses on this level for a long time and not appreciate how fortunate you can be and how great it is to be around horses like this.”

Especially when it comes to Always B Miki, who was sidelined for nearly a year because of injuries but has returned to win nine of 11 starts with two second-place finishes and earn $642,710 since last October.

In seven starts this season he has five wins and two seconds, winning $341,500. Trained by Jimmy Takter and driven predominantly by David Miller, he has finished in the money in 36 of 42 career starts, with 23 wins and $1.56 million in earnings. Roger Welch trained him as a 2-year-old and Joe Holloway had him at age 3, and Boni credits everyone involved for making the pacer the horse that he is today.

His chief rivals on Saturday have equally impressive statistics, which has helped create the excitement. Wiggle It Jiggleit -- owned by George Teague Jr. and Teague Racing Partnership, driven by Montrell Teague, and trained by Clyde Francis -- has won 32 of 40 lifetime races. Freaky Feet Pete -- bred by Larry Rheinheimer, who trains the stallion for his wife Mary Jo and son Marty -- has won 29 of 35 career starts.

Always B Miki drew post five in the Haughton Memorial while Freaky Feet Pete is in post seven and Wiggle It Jiggleit is in 10. The race attracted 12 starters, so it will be contested at 1-1/8 miles rather than the traditional one-mile distance.

“We always have confidence in him,” Boni said. “Jimmy and David have just done a great job with the horse. It’s going to be fun all year racing. We’ll go at it again and I’ll always say the same thing, I like our chances, as I’m sure the other guys will say too.

“The Ben Franklin was a hard-fought race and they all were competitive, they all took shots and they made it a very good event. How it’s going to happen this week I have no idea because if you try to talk to anyone that tried to handicap the Ben Franklin, I don’t know anybody who handicapped it the way the race fell.”

Boni feels what is interesting is that all three horses are Indiana-sired and none of the three are owned by major stables, which he feels should give hope to other owners out there.

“We’re essentially a small stable, we’re one horse,” he said. “George Teague races a moderate stable and the Rheinheimers, this is the first time they’ve been exposed on this level, so these are not some of the names that you’ve seen in recent years. That’s a very healthy thing. The naysayers that say you have to buy expensive horses and have to have a big stable, that’s not always the case. You can compete. It can happen at any time.”

In assessing the horses, Boni feels each one has their unique qualities and some similarities.

“Very little seems to bother Wiggle It Jiggleit, he can race on any size racetrack, and Freaky Feet Pete, the same thing; he’s been a terrific horse from his 2-year-old season,” he said. “They all have brilliant high speed. I would say the other two probably leave the gate faster than Miki does. He’s not quick off the gate. But once they get settled in they can all go very fast and they show they can go fast a long way.”

Boni says Always B Miki enters the Haughton Memorial a healthy, happy horse.

“It would have been nice if we didn’t have those injury issues, but he did,” the owner said. “In a somewhat bizarre way, I think he’s a better horse for it. He’s much sounder now.”

It’s because of those injuries that Always B Miki’s group continues to cherish all the good things that happen now.

“I don’t think there’s anybody here that takes any of this for granted and if anybody did, Miki’s had a way of reminding us with a couple incidents that we better not take it for granted,” Boni said with a laugh. “I think we’re all very appreciative. I don’t know anybody who doesn’t appreciate what he does.”

The Haughton Memorial is part of a stakes-filled card Saturday at the Meadowlands. Among the night’s other races are the Crawford Farms Meadowlands Pace, Mistletoe Shalee, Hambletonian Maturity, and divisions of the Stanley Dancer Memorial and Delvin Miller Memorial.

Always Be Miki Photo by Mark Hall/USTA

Following is the field for the Haughton Memorial.

1. Limelight Beach–Matt Kakaley–Ron Burke
2. Shamballa–Scott Zeron–Rick Zeron
3. Dealt A Winner–Brian Sears–Mark Silva
4. Americanprimetime–John Campbell–Rick Dane Jr.
5. Always B Miki–David Miller–Jimmy Takter
6. Mach It So–Tim Tetrick–Jeff Bamond Jr.
7. Freaky Feet Pete–Trace Tetrick–Larry Rheinheimer
8. Melmerby Beach–Corey Callahan–Ettore Annunziata
9. In The Arsenal –Brett Miller–Kelvin Harrison
10. Wiggle It Jiggleit–Montrell Teague–Clyde Francis
11. Always At My Place–Yannick Gingras–Ron Burke
12. All Bets Off–Matt Kakaley–Ron Burke
Always At My Place and All Bets Off start from the second tier.

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