BY LARRY HAMEL
For the Sun-Times

Larry Rheinheimer was content for his “hometown hero,” Freaky Feet Pete, to be a big fish in a small pond. But he always intended to give the Indiana-bred phenom at least one shot at proving his chops on a national stage.

The clincher came when Freaky Feet Pete took down the No. 1-ranked horse, Wiggle It Jiggleit, whose epic comeback in the Little Brown Jug had been hailed by pundits as one of the most courageous efforts in harness-racing history. The Jug had stamped Wiggle it not only as a mortal lock for Horse of the Year, but perhaps even Horse of the Decade.

The eye-opening victory by Freaky Feet Pete in the Indiana Sire Stakes final at Hoosier Park put him squarely on the national radar. Rheinheimer let his regional sensation swim in the big-time ocean by ponying up $62,500 to supplement Pete into the Breeders Crown 3-year-old male pace at Woodbine near Toronto.

His first races away from his home track paid off handsomely for the Rheinheimer family, which has a farm in LaGrange in northeast Indiana.

Pete won his elimination and then hit the jackpot on Oct. 24 with a rousing 1½-length, 1:50 victory over a sloppy track as the 1.35-to-1 favorite in the $531,250 Breeders Crown final. A week later came a rematch with Wiggle It at Hoosier Park in the $285,500 Monument Circle stake. Pete won again, by 1¼ lengths on a pocket shot.

In a month, Freaky Feet Pete had morphed from big fish in a little pond to Jaws, rising to No. 3 in the weekly standardbred poll.

Rheinheimer, 71, who has been in the racing business “on and off for 50 years,” trains Pete. His wife, Mary Jo, and son Marty are the owners of the Rockin Image colt.

Heading into the $150,000 American National 3-year-old male pace Saturday night at Balmoral Park, Pete’s bankroll has swelled to $1,037,724. He has 14 victories and two second place finishes in 16 starts in 2015.

Rheinheimer has had confidence in Pete, saying “even as a 2-year-old, I thought he could compete on the national level. But I couldn’t see the sense in hauling him all over the country with the amount of money these Indiana sire stakes go for.”

A significant player in the Freaky Feet Pete story is driver Trace Tetrick, an Illinois native who put in some time on the Chicago circuit. Pete gave Tetrick, 29, a breakthrough victory in the Breeders Crown.

“Trace Tetrick has just been super with the horse,” Rheinheimer said. “Couldn’t ask for a better driver. The first time he qualified Pete, Trace told me, ‘This is the best one that mare has produced. Just take care of him and he will last you a lifetime.’ ”

Tetrick called the Rheinheimer family “great people who have been in the business a long time. It’s fantastic for them to get this kind of once-in-a-lifetime horse.”

Follow me on Twitter @LPHAMEL.