Aboard the Express
Tenacious trotter a Foster family favorite
by Rich Fisher
Going by Russell Foster’s description of Northern Express, the most important matter that trainer Arty Foster Jr. needed to tend to after purchasing the horse was figuring out the right PIN-—personal identification number.
“He’s been a real ATM machine for my dad,” Russell said. “He got lucky to get him.”
Russell has driven the 7-year-old Muscle Massive gelding in the majority of his races since Foster Jr. purchased him at the 2019 Harrisburg mixed sale. His first two years of racing—under the care of trainer Jessica Okusko at Vernon Downs—included 13 starts that generated four wins, a second-place finish and two third-place finishes, good for just over $28,000 in earnings.
But by the end of March this year, Northern Express had hit the board 65 percent of the time in his 98 starts for the Fosters. His 28 wins, 25 seconds and 11 thirds during that time created over $470,000 in earnings, making him one of the sport’s top overnight horses.
“It would be nice to have a few more like him because you have a lot of confidence you’re gonna get a paycheck when you take him to the track,” said Arty Foster III, the horse’s groom who served as his dad’s spokesman. “He’s very healthy, very sound this year. Really a nice horse. He’s been great ever since we got him. We paid $12,000 at Harrisburg and he’s made $400,000. You can’t go wrong with that.”
Northern Express is the perfect animal for a small stable like the Fosters—who mainly farm their land in Maryland and have just four racehorses. He didn’t have a big reputation, but cashed a check in over 50 percent of his starts at 2 and 3, and showed some speed and ability with a mark of 1:55.4—a trotter with untapped talent that could be brought along under the right training.
“We’re smaller; we’re never gonna be at those sales for the big money,” Foster III said. “We have to look for the one who has that potential and we can get him at a bargain price. They’re very hard to find. It doesn’t work out too much, but we’re certainly happy when it does.”
Shortly after the purchase, the Fosters had Northern Express gelded on New Year’s Day of 2020. The previous owners liked his ability but put him up for sale due to some soundness issues they could not correct.
“When we bought him, he didn’t have shoes on, so we gelded him and he’s been good ever since,” Foster III said. “It was the right time, right place. We like to turn horses out together and have them side by side outside the barn. We don’t really have any need for a stallion. I don’t know if gelding him is what turned it around, but it sure didn’t hurt.”
Northern Express certainly got sound, considering his 27 starts as a 4-year-old were twice as many as he made in his first two years combined. He won a career-high 10 times and banked $82,460 in 2020. That was followed by 19 top-three finishes in 33 starts, good for a career-high $162,606 in single-season earnings. Last year, he brought in $152,962 by winning nine times and hitting the board 12 other times in 27 starts.
One of Northern Express’ most memorable races came in 2020 when he set the Dover track record for 4-year-old trotting geldings with a 1:52.2 win. Another highlight was a 2021 win at the Meadowlands with David Miller driving, and there was also a race at the Big M in which he trotted in 1:51.4.
“He didn’t win—he was third—but there was really a good field of horses and he closed really well,” Foster III said. “He showed he could compete with them.”
Early this season, at Bally’s Dover—the horse’s favorite track—Northern Express collected a check in each of his first 11 races. But there was only one victory to go along with seven second-place efforts.
“He’s always been better on the front end,” Foster III explained. “This year, he has not been able to get on the front end. He’s always had a two-hole trip or was right there close, but for whatever reason hasn’t been able to cut his own mile this year where in years past he has.”
Foster III felt part of the issue is that there was better talent surrounding Northern Express at Dover this year.
“There’s been a lot more trotters with better gate speed with this meet than in the past,” he said. “A couple other ones have made it a little tougher.”
Russell agreed with his brother that the horse usually needs to be out front in order to win.
“He’s never done much from off the pace,” the driver said. “He’s raced it a couple times, but really, he likes being up in the action. He’s a blast to drive; you can drive him with two fingers. He’s super quick off the gate. He can leave about as fast as any trotter I’ve ever driven. He likes to be forwardly placed, and with his gate speed it’s pretty easy to give it to him. He’s definitely one of the top two or three trotters I’ve ever driven.”
Unfortunately for the Fosters, Dover is where Northern Express enjoys most of his success, and the Delaware track ended its meet in March. They are hoping to race at Rosecroft, but if that does not materialize, the horse will compete mainly at Harrah’s Philadelphia, in Chester, Pa.
“He doesn’t handle Chester very well,” Foster III said. “At Harrington, he can’t get around the half (-mile track) too well. We’ll go to Rosecroft if they let us. The Meadowlands is tough; it’s a long ride and really good competition. We’ll go to Chester; he’s just not as good there.”
When Northern Express is away from the track, he has a fairly friendly personality.
“He’s really nice at home, but we leave him out a lot and I think that helped,” Foster III said. “I’m not sure if it came from being stabled at a track, but he definitely likes to be outside. There’s not a mean bone in his body. But like a lot of trotters, he can be pretty high-strung. He is a little bit of a handful in the paddock but not too bad.”
And when the race starts, the personality changes.
“He knows when to turn the switch on,” Foster III continued. “He jogs really nice at home, doesn’t really grab on at all. But he always leaves every week and people say, ‘How can you race a horse like that?’ But if you don’t have him up or near the front, he’ll get hot. He’s choked in the past. He’ll also run from time to time if you try to fight him.”
Whatever little quirks need to be dealt with, it does not diminish what Northern Express means to the Foster stable.
“He’s definitely the best trotter we’ve had,” Foster III said. “There was another pacer we had a few years back that was pretty good. (Northern Express) is No. 2 overall, but if he keeps going, he’ll be the best horse we ever had. As long as he stays sound, he’ll keep racing. I’m fairly certain he’s got a home for life now.”
…and the Fosters hope they have an ATM that keeps paying off for a while longer. HB
Rich Fisher is a freelance writer living in New Jersey. To comment on this story, email us at email@example.com.