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He was the Eddie Arcaro, the Willie Shoemaker of his era. More than 145 years ago, the son of a slave began to carve his indelible mark on the tree of American Thoroughbred history.
A slight man, Isaac Burns Murphy was known for his soft hands and bowlegs. Weighing in at 70 pounds when he launched his career, Murphy rode upright, rather than in a crouch, and he was a superb judge of pace. His mounts tended to close with devastating speed, often winning by a head or less. Those tight finishes came to be known as "Murfinishes."
Many consider Murphy the greatest American jockey of all time. By his own account Murphy won 44% of his races. Racing historians can only verify 34.5% from the era, but it's likely that some of Murphy's races were not documented. Either way, Murphy set a standard that no other jockey has come close to matching. Consider that Eddie Arcaro, recognized as the greatest U.S. jockey of the 20th Century, had a winning percentage of only 22%. Murphy was the first jockey inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 1956.
Murphy was born on a farm near Frankfort, Ky., the same month the Civil War broke out in 1861. His father James Burns, by then a free black man, was a bricklayer and his mother, America, was a laundrywoman. Burns joined the Union Army and later died in a Confederate prisoner of war camp. Meanwhile, Isaac and his mother had moved to Lexington, Ky. to live with her father, Green Murphy, a bell ringer and auction crier. When Isaac Burns became a professional jockey he changed his last name to Murphy as a tribute to his grandfather.
During the second half of the 19th Century, the sport of horse racing was built with the talents and labors of African-Americans as trainers, exercise riders, hot walkers, stable hands, and grooms. Black jockeys were ubiquitous and the first sports heroes in post-Civil War America. They won 15 of the first 28 of America's most important horse races at Churchill Downs. In fact, every rider on the track at the inaugural Kentucky Derby in 1875 was black, except one. And, the first winner Aristides was ridden by another former slave, Oliver Lewis.
When Murphy's mother was hired to work at the Richard and Owings Racing Stable in Lexington, 14-year old Isaac found his calling. Drawn by Isaac's small stature — standing under five feet and weighing 70 pounds — the best trainer in Fayette County, a black trainer named "Uncle" Eli Jordan, began schooling him as an exercise boy. Jordan put him on the stable's best runners, instructing Isaac to ride fast quarter-mile, half-mile, and mile distances while timing him at each interval so that he learned the intricacies of race riding.
After two years of lessons in the spring of 1875 it was time to perform. Riding a 2-year old filly named Glentina, Murphy scored his first winning race at the Kentucky Association track in Lexington. Murphy swept the three most important races at the Churchill Downs spring meeting in 1884 — the Kentucky Oaks with Modesty, and the Kentucky Derby and the Clark Stakes, with the high-spirited colt Buchanan.
Murphy scored his second Kentucky Derby victory with Riley in 1890. The following year he won his third and last Derby with Kingman. Kingman is the only Derby winner that was owned by an African American, Dudley Allen. Murphy's trio of Derby victories was not equaled until 1930 and not broken until 1948.
Other impressive achievements of his 20-year racing career were winning the Latonia Derby (also called the Hindoo Stakes) five times, the Clark Stakes in Louisville four times and the American Derby in Chicago four times. Murphy rode some of the finest horses of his day, including Freeland, Leonatus, and Checkmate, but his favorite was Emperor of Norfolk, a Hall of Famer who excelled in 1887 and 1888.
"I tell you, he was a wonder," Murphy said, "and when [he was] in the best of condition I have yet to see the horse that, in my opinion, could defeat him."
During his peak years Murphy reportedly earned $15,000 to $20,000 annually when the average yearly income for a family of four was $1,200. But in July 1890, Murphy's high-flying career was short-circuited after he finished out of the money aboard the favored Firenze in the Monmouth Handicap. Dizzy and swaying, Murphy nearly slipped off Firenze several times during the race and did tumble off just past the finish line. Charged with drunkenness, Murphy was suspended by the stewards. He blamed his behavior on a sudden weight loss.
Although he rode winners in 32 races in 1891 — including his third Kentucky Derby — Murphy won only six races in 1892 and just four in 1893. He was winless with seven mounts in 1894. On November 13, 1895, Murphy was in the irons for the last time. He went out a winner on a 8-1 shot named Tupta at the Kentucky Association track.
In retirement, Murphy owned a small string of racehorses and also worked as a trainer. Unlike many old-time jockeys, he had invested his earnings in real estate. Murphy and his wife, Lucy, were part of a vibrant middle class in Lexington and lived a lavish lifestyle in a mansion on what is now Third Street.
He came down with pneumonia in February 1896 and died at age 36. Originally buried in the nearby African Cemetery No. 2, Murphy was later exhumed and reburied in Man o’ War Park. He was re-exhumed and buried a third and final time at the Kentucky Horse Park across from Man o’ War, considered the greatest racehorse in history.
Murphy is still celebrated today. The Isaac Murphy Award is given every year to the jockey that has the highest winning percentage by the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters.
Note: This story was originally published in July 2014 and has been updated.
If you want to learn more about Murphy, pick up a copy of Pellom McDaniels III's biography, "The Prince of Jockeys: The Life of Isaac Burns Murphy."