08/20/2015 8:02PM

Gone Astray makes his mark in Sunshine State

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Bill Denver/Equiphotos
Multiple graded stakes winner Gone Astray is now Florida's leading freshman sire.

America’s broad economic disaster of 2008 hit the Thoroughbred business like a hard-swung sledgehammer, staggering the industry with precipitous declines in the foal crop, number of mares bred, and number of active stallions from coast to coast. Florida – the region that had given us such Hall of Fame champions as Dr. Fager, Affirmed, Needles, Susan’s Girl, Precisionist, Ta Wee, Desert Vixen, and Skip Away – was not exempt from the pain. Months preceding this fiscal meltdown, the Sunshine State’s stallion roster had boasted 246 names; four breeding seasons later, that number had plummeted by 43 percent to 140. But amid rubble and chaos, there was hope.

In 2012, the Iadisernia family’s modern, fully equipped 120-acre Northwest Stud, built on part of what was once the historic Fred Hooper Farm, opened its doors near Ocala with a couple of well-bred young prospects occupying stalls in the stallion barn. One of these was Gone Astray, a Phipps family-bred multiple graded stakes winner by Dixie Union out of a Mr. Prospector half-sister to an Eclipse Award champion, from one of the all-time great distaff families in the American Stud Book – his grandam was Hall of Famer Inside Information, and he traced directly on the bottom line to legendary broodmare Grey Flight, the dam of nine stakes winners and ancestress of hundreds more.

Late in 2011, Gone Astray was acquired in a private transaction from Phipps Stable, for which he had scored decisive victories in the 2009 Pennsylvania Derby, 2009 Ohio Derby, and 2010 Salvator Mile while placing in seven additional black-type events and banking $1,125,162.

“I honestly don’t know how we got this horse,” Northwest stallion director Dr. Alfredo Lichoa recently pondered. “Maybe because he wasn’t a Grade 1 winner?”

A Grade 1 victory was the only missing element from stallion credentials for Gone Astray. According to Lichoa, the fee for the beautifully conformed, royally bred nearly black millionaire was set at $4,500 live foal so that Florida breeders could afford access to “a really nice horse.” The response? Enthusiastic and immediate. Gone Astray’s book filled to near-overflow, with 112 mares that first season and 119 in the second.

As foals began arriving early in 2013, reviews were positive across the board. They were smart, solid, and good-looking, the very image of their sire.

“Those babies,” said Lichoa. “I still get calls from people all the time about them. Gone Astray himself is a massive, heavy horse with a great hindquarter and is really well put together. Almost all the babies look just like him. He has been very dominant – there have been no chestnuts in any of his crops.”

Through mid-August, Gone Astray stood alone atop Florida’s freshman sire list with four winners, including two stakes winners, and progeny earnings of $311,713 from 12 starters. Nationally, he ranked third among freshman sires, behind only champion Uncle Mo and Twirling Candy, and he was the second-leading juvenile sire overall in Florida to another Dixie Union stallion, High Cotton (Ocala Stud), who had twice as many runners.

Gone Astray’s debut starter brought a hint of things to come. It’s High Time hit the track May 21 at Gulfstream Park, sizzling in an open maiden special weight race by 7 1/2 lengths before returning in August to dominate the $200,000 Florida Sire Desert Vixen Stakes for statebred fillies. In June, the unbeaten Bullet Gone Astray added a nine-length tally in the $100,000 Mountaineer Juvenile to his 2-for-2 résumé, and a month after that, Orbital Flight fought tenaciously for the lead before beating Delaware Park maidens. Then in late July, first-time starter Shakakan scored a front-running victory in a Gulfstream maiden special on grass.

That kind of early speed surprised even Lichoa, who had expected the Gone Astrays to develop somewhat more slowly and to get better with age. If his offspring do, in fact, improve over time, this young chart-topping stallion has a bright future ahead of him.

“People call me every day now asking about his stud fee,” Lichoa said. “But honestly, we don’t know. Unless something happens, like two Grade 1 winners coming along, I think it’ll be close to the same next year, maybe $5,000.”

In the meantime, things are looking up in Florida, where both numbers and quality are on the rise. As Lichoa proudly pointed out, three of America’s current top 10 freshman sires call Florida home. In addition to Gone Astray, those would be fourth-ranked champion sprinter Big Drama (Bridlewood Farm) and sixth-ranked Hollywood Gold Cup winner First Dude (Double Diamond Farm).