A Brief History of Black Champion Jockey Isaac Murphy
Isaac Burns Murphy won the Kentucky Derby three times and is reckoned to have been one of the best thoroughbred jockeys in America. He was born to his free black parents in Kentucky in 1861 and rose to be the highest-paid jockey of his era before white people figured out the horse-riding trade could lead to big money and pushed him aside.
Black Jockeys in Early Horse Racing
Rich landowners in the South began organizing horse races late in the 17th century. They imported thoroughbred horses and used the plentiful supply of slaves to tend to the animals. African-Americans ran the stables and trained the horses. Eventually, they also rode them for the entertainment of white people.
By the 1820s, horse racing had become America’s most popular sport, and blacks had a prominent role. It was one of the few ways in which an African-American could make a decent living.
Isaac Burns Murphy's Racing Career
Isaac Murphy was only a 13-year-old lad when his impoverished mother apprenticed him to a horse breeder. He learned the stablehand trade and was soon exercising horses. Trainer Eli Jordan saw some talent in Murphy, and his small stature made him a good prospect as a jockey. At 14, he was racing, and his first win came in September of 1875. Blackpast.org reports, “He rode upright and urged his mount on with words and a spur rather than the whip.”
He had a knack for keeping his horses calm and developed the technique of the stretch run. Most jockeys rode their mounts hell-bent-for-leather to the winning post, but Murphy conserved his horse’s stamina and sprinted to the finish line while the other animals were flagging.
By 1877, he was winning a lot of races and breeders and trainers were taking notice. That was the year of his first Kentucky Derby—he finished fourth. His first Kentucky Derby win came in 1884, followed by back-to-back wins in 1890 and 1891. He was the first jockey to win that race twice in a row. He also won Chicago’s American Derby four times (this race was more prestigious than the Kentucky Derby at the time).
Isaac Murphy claimed that during his career, he won 44 percent of the time he entered a race. A more nuanced evaluation of his racing record suggests he won 530 races out of 1,538 entered—that’s still a record-setting win rate of 34 percent.
As the big prize money rolled in, Murphy became a wealthy man. He was making around $15,000 a year, which translates to roughly $400,000 today, and that doesn't include bonuses. In 1887, The New York Times noted that he had purchased what it called “a fine suburban residence” in Kentucky. This sent a signal to the white community.
Racism at the Track
White Americans began to notice that there was big money to be made as a champion jockey, and many began to wonder why black people were benefiting from it.
Pellom McDaniels III is the author of the 2018 book, Prince of Jockeys, which chronicles the life of Isaac Murphy. He wrote, “When the amount of money a jockey could make increased, white men and boys gravitated towards the sport and began colluding to exclude African American jockeys from the major contracts available.”
Murphy wasn’t a jockey anymore; he was a coloured jockey. He also started to fall out of favour because he would not take a bribe to let another rider win. Kate Kelly wrote (in America Comes Alive) that Murphy “believed in an honest race.”
Making the Weight
Isaac Murphy had struggled with his weight throughout his racing career. Murphy’s natural weight was between 130 and 140 pounds, but he needed to be down to 110 pounds to be viable as a jockey. As was the case with other jockeys, he went on starvation diets and induced vomiting.
In 1890, he came in last of seven in a race in which his horse was the favourite. After the race, he fell off his horse and it was thought, although never proved, that he was drunk. The incident led to his suspension, and his reputation never recovered.
The mounts offered to Murphy began to be of lesser quality, and he started to develop health problems. In 1895, there was another allegation of intoxication in the saddle and another suspension. He decided it was time to quit.
In February 1896, he died of pneumonia, although some accounts say it was heart failure. He was just 35 years old. There was a huge funeral, and then Isaac Burns Murphy was forgotten.
A Reputation Restored
As racism and Jim Crow laws took over the American South, Isaac Murphy and his amazing feats faded into obscurity. Nobody visited his unmarked grave in the African Cemetery No. 2 in Lexington, Kentucky.
Then, along came Frank B. Borries Jr. He was a journalist at the University of Kentucky, and he tracked down Murphy’s last resting place. The great jockey’s story was then brought back to life. In 1967, his remains were reburied alongside Man o’ War, considered by many to have been the greatest thoroughbred of all time. The horse and rider were again moved and buried at the entrance to the Kentucky Horse Park.
When the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame opened in Saratoga Springs, New York in 1955, Isaac Murphy was the first jockey inducted. The National Turf Writers Association now hands out the Isaac Murphy Award to the jockey in the United States with the highest winning percentage. And, in 1997, Chicago’s Arlington International Racecourse changed the name of its celebrated American derby to the Isaac Murphy Stakes.
- The first Kentucky Derby was held in 1875, and 15 of the 17 jockeys in the race were black. Over the next 28 years, African American jockeys won the race 15 times.
- Between 1921 and 2000, no African American jockeys rode in the Kentucky Derby.
- Isaac Murphy rode Kingman to victory in the 1891 Kentucky Derby in the slowest winning time ever recorded—2:52.25. (Typically, the Derby today is run in just over two minutes.) Kingman remains the only horse owned by an African American to win the Derby.
- Isaac Murphy’s record of three Kentucky Derby wins stood until 1948, when Eddie Arcaro chalked up his fourth win.
- “African Americans and Horse Racing.” Encyclopedia Britannica, undated.
- “Born into Slavery, this Man Won the Kentucky Derby Three Times and Became the Richest American Athlete.” Erin Blakemore, Timeline, undated.
- “Murphy, Isaac Burns (1861-1896).” Cassandra Waggoner, Blackpast.org, undated.
- “Isaac Burns Murphy.” Encyclopedia Britannica, undated.
- “Black Jockey Hall of Famer Isaac Burns Murphy.” Kate Kelly, America Comes Alive, undated.
- “Isaac Burns Murphy.” Biography.com, June 15, 2015.
© 2018 Rupert Taylor