Johnson Cross a Partnership That Works

Tanya Johnson (left) and Kelli Cross | EquiSport

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Kelli Cross and Tanya Johnson found themselves in similar situations three years ago, juggling farms, sales and motherhood all at the same time, when they decided to join forces and create the Johnson Cross consignment which debuted at the Keeneland January Horses of All Ages Sale in 2021. The horsewomen have only gained strength since then and return with their third offering at the Fasig-Tipton Kentucky October Yearlings Sale next week in Lexington.

“Tanya and I had known each other for a few years,” Cross explained. “She operates Red Gables Stud, which is boarding and breeding, basically a Thoroughbred nursery, and I operate Sovereign Farm. And we are both moms. The last sale I did under Sovereign Farm, I was seven months pregnant. I looked at her a few months later and said, 'This would be way easier if we just did it together.' And she agreed.”

The two women quickly realized they made a great team.

“Tanya is always on a shank,” Cross said. “If there is a tough one–she's probably five foot even–if there is a big rank colt, she's always there. I will do cards. I do enjoy showing, too, but we complement each other. One of our strengths pick up where the other one leaves off. It was very easy to find our groove.”

Johnson added, “Kelli is really good at talking to the people and I'm not. I stand back and let her do that and I'm with the horses while she deals with the people, so it works out really well.”

Johnson continued, “If Kelli can't be here, I can and if I can't be here, Kelli can. It's so much easier having two of us in this position. As she said, we both have kids that are our number one priority. And the farms, I guess, would be the number two priority.”

Balancing a life in the Thoroughbred industry with raising a family is actually what led Johnson to start Red Gables Stud in 2007.

“When I started Red Gables, I was seven months pregnant with my second child,” Johnson said. “It is so hard to be a mom in this business–or to do both–I should say. And I wanted to do both. The only way I could figure to do both was to have my own place. It wasn't necessarily the best financial decision at the time. But at that time, I had a 2-year-old and was pregnant again. I wanted to be with my kids and I also didn't want to give up working. There is no way I could have done that. I had a good client base and they all supported me in starting the farm, so I went ahead and did that. And I've been doing it ever since.”

Red Gables hit the international stage earlier this year when Valiant Force (Malibu Moon), who was born at the farm, captured the G2 Norfolk S. at Royal Ascot.

“For a first baby, when he hit the ground, we were all like he's gorgeous,” Johnson said of the future group winner. “We just all knew it. He was a little bit sassy. We bred her back and then [breeder] Ramon [Rangel] took her home. We are prepping the half-sister, the Mitole (hip 72), right now for the [Fasig-Tipton November] Night of the Stars. Ramon is doing the mare–he didn't want to do both–so we took the baby for him. I think she's a nicer baby, but we will see.”

The Johnson Cross consignment kicked off the yearling sales season with a pair of strong results at the Fasig-Tipton July sale earlier this year, selling a filly by Malibu Moon (hip 188) for $275,000 and a colt by Thousand Words (hip 37) for $150,000. Both were homebreds from Cross's Sovereign Farm.

Two months after the auction, the filly's half-sister Ms. Tart (Maximus Mischief), who had sold for $145,000 at the 2022 Keeneland January sale, broke her maiden on debut at Colonial Downs. The filly traveled north of the border to run in the GI Natalma S. Both fillies are out of Sheza Sweet Lemon (Lemon Drop Kid), a mare who helped start off Sovereign Farm back in 2014.

“I bought her for $1,000,” Cross said of the mare. “My husband felt bad for her because she looked like she got kicked in the head. He said, 'Kelli, she has a sinus infection, she needs some help.' So we bought her and her first foal ended up beating Bucchero in a graded stakes and he gave us some black-type updates there. She is just the gift that keeps on giving–20% of the babies that we raise at Sovereign Farm will run in a stakes race and obviously she helps those numbers quite a bit.”

Johnson Cross will offer seven horses at next week's October sale.

“I think the one I am looking forward to is the Maximus Mischief, just because of how well he's doing right now,” Johnson said of hip 451. “This is a filly that we RNA'd out of July because she was just big and a little immature back then. But she's grown into herself and looks like she's going to be a beautiful horse.”

The yearling, who RNA'd for $47,000 in July, is out of Faithful Prayer (With Distinction) and was bred by Connie Brown.

Cross brings a pair of colt by first-crop sires to the October sale. Hip 812 is a son of Global Campaign out of stakes-placed Luna Rising (Stay Thirsty) and hip 1108 is by Promises Fulfilled. Out of Pure Legacy (Simon Pure), he is a half-brother to 'TDN Rising Star' The Great Maybe (Upstart). Both yearlings were bred by Monica Egger.

“Both are first-year sires and that's great because people always get really excited about those,” Cross said. “And both of them are lovely colts. They are both for a client of mine that I've had for years and years. She is a wonderful lady.”

While still in its infancy, the Johnson Cross consignment has already had great success with yearlings by first-crop stallions, according to Cross.

“[Ms. Tart] was the first six-figure Maximus Mischief sold at auction,” Cross said. “And interestingly enough, we had the first six-figure Thousand Words to sell at auction [in July]. So two years in a row, we've taken some handier stud fees and we have been able to have that first six-figure baby, which I think says a lot about our little program that we've put together.”

The ethos of the Johnson Cross consignment is very much in keeping with its partners' personalities.

“Boutique,” Cross described the consignment. “We feel like it's very carefully curated. We are going to have a couple of horses in the sale for customers and we have a couple of horses in the sale for ourselves. So it's a good mix.”

Johnson added, “We are just going to keep it smaller to where we can be hands on with all of the horses in our consignment. We get to hand pick show people, so the horses are shown to the best and taken care of at the sale. It's not about numbers for us.”

The small numbers also allow Johnson and Cross to have a personal relationship with their clients.

“I can't say enough about our clients,” Cross said. “We have fun with our clients. It's a good group. They all feel like friends and family.”

Johnson agreed.

“They love being able to come to the sale and come to the barn,” she said. “We have a client who likes to top up the horses for us when they go out. It's great. They feel comfortable doing it. We are fine with them being here. There is nothing being hidden from them. Obviously there are times when they don't do so well, but I think because they trust and rely on us for our input, it's never a surprise. It's brutal honesty from us. You've got to keep it honest and upfront. They want that, too, deep down, even if they might not appreciate it at the time. I think that's what makes it fun.”

The Fasig-Tipton October sale will be held next Monday through Thursday with bidding beginning each day at 10 a.m at Newtown Paddocks.

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