December was once a down month in racing. No more. Racing this Saturday is as good as it gets. NYRA has its last big hurrah until spring with four graded stakes, headed by the Cigar Mile, being run at the latest date ever. Gulfstream launches its prime season with what has become the traditional winter opening event, the Claiming Crown. It's a magical day for those who like full fields of blue collar horses. Each of the nine stakes has at least a dozen starters.

Racing hardly gets any better than this Saturday—the first weekend in December. NYRA stages its final big hurrah until spring with four graded stakes, including the celebrated Cigar Mile, which is being run later in the year than ever. Closer to my home, Gulfstream launches its prime winter season with the nine-stakes Claiming Crown.

The Cigar should be a beauty. Jorge Navarro’s Sharp Azteca, who has been right there in a slew of important stakes for older horses, faces off against Chad Brown’s crack 3-year-old Practical Joke, who has never been beaten around one turn.

The Grade 1 Cigar, Grade 2 Remsen for 3-year-olds and Grade 2 Demoiselle for fillies are carded as the final three races on the card. A maiden race for NY breds separates those three from the Grade 3 Go For Wand, probably to service the NYRA Bets Late Pick 5, which resumes Saturday.

If not for Gulfstream, there probably would be no Claiming Crown. The imaginative series for horses, who have raced for varying claiming prices, kicked around the Midwest without notable success for 13 years. It was headed toward extinction when Gulfstream stepped up in 2012 and made it the opening day feature of the winter season.

South Florida fans embraced it like stone crabs, mojitos and tanning lotion. After three years of generating $10 million-plus handle, the Claiming Crown had its first $11 million day last December.

There's no secret why. The nine Claiming Crown races attracted 132 entries. No field has fewer than a dozen before scratches. The Claiming Crown packs appeal for those who appreciate stakes caliber racing as well as fans of the blue collar horses who fill the racing cards at Gulfstream and other tracks that don’t get a lot of attention most of the year.

The early highlight of the meeting is the second edition of the Pegasus on Jan. 27 with a purse jacked up to a world record $16 million. This year’s renewal could feature something I can’t recall happening before. Three Eclipse winners could be in the starting gate. Gun Runner, a cinch to be named Horse of the Year and Best Older Dirt Horse at the Eclipse ceremonies at Gulfstream on Jan. 25, is pointing to the race, as is surefire best older dirt female Forever Unbridled. Also, Bob Baffert has said it’s his intention to ship in West Coast, the favorite to earn 3-year-old male Eclipse honors.

A couple of other Eclipse contenders, Good Magic and Caledonia Road, winners of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and Juvenile Fillies, respectively, will be stabled at Gulfstream or one of its satellites and could begin their sophomore campaigns in South Florida.

It wouldn’t be a winter season if Todd Pletcher didn’t roll out a few maidens who go on to become stakes horses and maybe even a Kentucky Derby winner like Always Dreaming last year.

An interesting addition to the Gulfstream agenda, the Classico del Caribe, the Kentucky Derby of Latin America, will be run in North America for the first time on Dec. 9. Five other stakes for horses from south of the border are scheduled. It’s a risky gambit for Gulfstream on a prime meet Saturday since the majority of horses, riders and trainers will be unfamiliar to local fans. Then again, few thought bringing the Claiming Crown to Gulfstream was a great idea. Not everything the Stronach Group tries works but you have to give them credit for trying.

More proof the boycott succeeded

Some horseplayers inexplicably want to diminish the impact of the Keeneland boycott and label it a failure.

The fall Del Mar and Gulfstream West (nee Calder) seasons, which concluded Sunday, provides the latest evidence to debunk such naysaying. Gulfstream West handle skyrocketed 10.33 percent despite a blustery couple of months in which 58 races had to be taken off the turf and 14 fewer races were offered than in 2016.

Even without the two Breeders’ Cup afternoons, Del Mar handle was up 7.5 percent, the seaside track’s best fall performance ever. These mirror autumn meeting upticks at Santa Anita, Belmont and Laurel. Simultaneously, Keeneland was down about 8.7 percent.

Given what happened at other major tracks, there is no reason other than the boycott why Keeneland also shouldn’t have been up. Racing was top notch and field size was roughly comparable to previous years. So the almost 9 percent drop in handle understates the full impact of the boycott.

I’ll concede one thing to the knockers. Unless horse players pick up where they left off for the Keeneland spring 2018 meeting, it all will have been for naught. Tracks considering raising their own takeouts will be comforted that they might have to bite the bullet for one meeting then reap the profits thereafter. Horse players cannot allow this to happen.

Derby future an ego trip

The Kentucky Derby future bets are not for thinking players. Trying to come up with the winner of a race six months out, when many of those who will line up in the starting gate in May are still unknowns—Always Dreaming was an 0-2 maiden, both sprints, this time last year—is all about ego, not common horse playing sense.

Those who play want to be able to boast, “I came up with the Derby winner” months ago. The payoff is a bonus. If bettors were really in it for the money, they would put more thought into hidden opportunities.

Bolt d’Oro wound up going off the top individual horse in the first round win pool at 7.50-1. If the third-place finisher in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile—the winner, Good Magic closed at 11.40-1—picks up where he left off during Derby prep season, $17 will be a fat mutual.

But if Bolt d’Oro’s fan base put a little thought into it and paid closer attention to the odds, there was a better opportunity. In an effort to squeeze a few extra dollars out of fans, Churchill also offers a Sires Pool; pick the father of the winner and you get paid.

Bolt d’Oro is by Medaglia d’Oro. If any of his offspring capture the roses, the payoff is 5.90-1 or 13.80. Along with Bolt d’Oro, those who settled on Medaglia d’Oro, also get Enticed, who overcame an eventful trip to win Saturday’s Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes over the strip where the Derby will be contested, and Montauk, a colt from the Todd Pletcher barn so highly touted that his 17-1 odds are the fourth lowest among 23 individual entries despite only a maiden sprint win.

“But wait,” as they say on cable TV. “There’s more.” You would also get any other offspring of Medaglia d’Oro, who come along between now and May and make it into the Derby.

Which is a better bet, 5.90-1 on three or more Medaglia d’Oro horses, including Bolt d’Oro, or 7.50-1 on only one. Of course, people who bet the Derby future don’t think a lot.

For the record, if I had played, I would have put a few bucks on Avery Island, who closed 29-1, and will be in the Remsen Stakes.