Gulfstream has become a year-round player but the start of its prime winter meeting is still a big event on the racing calendar. As has become traditional, the Claiming Crown is the attraction on Saturday's opening day program. Meanwhile NYRA has its last major hurrah of 2018 with a stakes heavy card headed by the Grade 1 Cigar Mile at Aqueduct.

Horse racing in South Florida is like politics in Washington. There is no offseason, merely some times of year more significant than others.

To borrow from a tune popular in December, the most wonderful time of year arrives Saturday at Gulfstream with the opening of the prime winter meet. What has become the traditional opener, the Claiming Crown, again has attracted interest from horsemen and bettors alike.

Like summer racing, the Claiming Crown is an example of how Gulfstream has taken something almost irrelevant and built it into a major deal. The Claiming Crown was created at Canterbury in 1999 in an attempt to build a big day at a second tier track.

But it kicked around the Midwest for more than a decade without generating much fanfare and appeared headed for the scrap heap until Gulfstream stepped up seven years ago and made it the centerpiece of opening day of the winter season.

Since then the number of races, their purses—none of nine races less than $110K—and handle have exploded. Last December, fans bet a record $11,925,000.

Beyond handle, it has been a great deal for Gulfstream, which gets a full day of nominal stakes to launch its season without tapping into the big names biding their time for later in the meeting. The first real star power will come on Dec. 15 when 2018 Florida Derby champion Audible preps for the Jan. 26 Pegasus in the Harlan’s Holiday.

Breeders’ Cup Classic champion and Horse of the Year candidate Accelerate, as well as his lone conqueror this year, Dirt Mile winner City of Lights, are expected to head the field of the now $9 million spectacle, reduced from $16 million to allow for a companion $7 million turf stakes.

There will be no similar quality Saturday but it will be made up for with quantity. A record 346 horses were nominated to the Claiming Crown, enough to fill more than 28 12-horse fields. Maybe Gulfstream should consider turning it into a two-day event, a la the Breeders’ Cup.

Including a couple of maiden races, the average field size Saturday is more than 13, a big reason why Claiming Crown Day has become such a player magnet.

A roster of big name trainers—Todd Pletcher, Jason and John Servis, Eddie Kenneally and Michael Stidham-- have nominees. But the ones to pay particular attention to are probably Mike Maker, who has won 16 Claiming Crown stakes, and Jorge Navarro, who is almost as lethal at Gulfstream as he is at Monmouth. Only Todd Pletcher won more races last season.

Navarro, who has trained six Claiming Crown winners, has 15 horses entered in six of the Claiming Crown events, including three in the nominal feature the $200,000 Jewel. Play against “The Juice Man” on Saturday, and every subsequent day, at your own risk.

Chad vs. Todd in Cigar

While Gulfstream is gearing up for the new season, NYRA is throttling down the meat of its schedule with a bevy of prestigious stakes, headed by the Cigar Mile, the last Grade 1 of 2018 in New York.

As Cigar renewals go, this year’s edition is a Tiparillo, a big name stakes devoid of big names unless you put Mendelssohn, who has had more international plane trips than UN diplomats, in that category. He ran away with the UAE Derby but a second in the Travers is his major accomplishment on this side of the Atlantic.

Chad Brown is sending out a potent pair. Patternrecognition is bidding for his third straight win after breaking through in graded stakes company by winning the Grade 2 Kelso last time out. Stablemate Timeline looked like any kind last year, winning his first four starts, including the Peter Pan.

Alas, something happened in the Haskell and he hasn’t been the same, going 1-for-6 since. Most recently he finished third in the Kelso.

It wouldn’t be a New York stakes without a Chad-Todd confrontation. Pletcher might have the horse to beat in fragile but brilliant Copper Town. He ended 2017 with a triple digit fig allowance win in New York then didn’t run again for a year. He returned last month to crush an allowance field at Keeneland.

The Cigar will be an indication of whether he is about to become a major player on the 2019 stakes scene. Todd likes him, which is good enough for me.

Remsen loses key player

The Remsen, which threatened to overshadow the Cigar because of its Kentucky Derby implications, lost a lot of its luster when Shug McGaughey announced Wednesday that he wasn’t happy with the way Code of Honor is training, so he will not run.

The late withdrawal of Code of Honor, winner of his debut-- a tipoff of major talent for any McGaughey charge—before a troubled second in the Champagne, is an encore of sorts. Code of Honor also was pulled from the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile when he spiked a fever on the day. Let's hope this doesn't become a trend.

This appears to put New York’s key two-turn stakes for Derby hopefuls at the mercy of Maximus Mischief, who comes in from Pennsylvania, where he has looked like the second coming of Smarty Jones. The $340,000 son of hot sire Into Mischief is two-for-two with both Beyers in the 90s.

Trainer Robert Reid, who knows his way around a big horse, said he has never seen anything like him.

Maximus Mischief and Code of Honor still might run into each other prior to the spring classics. Both are headed to Florida for the winter.

Baffert has title aspirations

The bet of the weekend, if you don’t mind a short price, is Marley’s Freedom in the Go For Wand. She was at the head of her class, a favorite for an Eclipse Award, going into the BC Filly & Mare Sprint.

After a nightmare trip as the public choice, the runaway winner of Saratoga’s Ballerina could manage only a wide, fast closing fourth, beaten about a length.

Baffert is shipping her East, apparently still hoping to grab distaff sprint honors. With Justify and Game Winner locks to take Eclipse Awards, a third divisional champion could settle the trainer's head-to-head competition between Baffert and Chad.