What comes to mind when someone mentions the Kentucky Derby? How about those big hats the ladies wear? How about drinking mint juleps while the song “My Old Kentucky Home” is being played on a continuous loop? Lastly, you can’t forget about the beautiful bed of roses that adorns the winning horse with the jockey. Did you ever think about one of the greatest African-American jockeys in the modern era to win the Kentucky Derby? Well, his name is Mr. Isaac Burns Murphy.
Isaac Burns Murphy was born January 1, 1861, in Kentucky. His grandparents came to Kentucky, migrating from Virginia. Many African-Americans at that time went to Kentucky for better opportunities, and to farm the land. However, around 1873, Murphy’s parents became ill, so there was a fear that there would be no one to look after Murphy. Isaac was introduced to a horse trainer named Eli Jordon and subsequently was also introduced to horse racing. At this time, he officially changed his name to Isaac Burns Murphy, to honor his grandfather.
As Isaac began his racing career, it was a very tumultuous time in the South. At the genesis, around 1870’s-1890’s, the South was transitioning during The Reconstruction period, all while the Jim Crow Laws were beginning to form. So, just imagine trying to race in a generally “white sport,” while witnessing blatant segregation and lynching all around you. With all of this happening around him, he continued to toile and made a name for himself in the racing industry.
Isaac Murphy’s first victory was September 15, 1875, at the Lexington Crab Orchard. Some of Murphy’s notable races included the Monmouth Handicap in New Jersey. This was not one of his best races, and there were reports that he participated in this race while under the influence of alcohol. However, further investigation was done, and it was found that he may have been poisoned. Another controversial race for Murphy, occurred June 25, 1890, with a White jockey by the name of Ed “Snapper” Harrison. It was so close it is known to be one of the first “photo finishes” in the history books of horse racing.
DID YOU KNOW?
“Black jockeys dominated horse racing from its inception, taking 15 of the first 28 Kentucky Derbies between 1875 and 1902.”
(Black History Album)
Despite the obstacles faced, Isaac Murphy won the prestigious American Derby in Chicago between the years of 1884-1888, and the Kentucky Derby between the years of 1890-1891. At the height of his career, Murphy was earning around $25,000 season, and even had his own tobacco card (which was the equivalent of a baseball card), along with other sponsorship opportunities. When Murphy was finished racing, he accumulated an amazing winning percentage of around 44 percent, which is still unprecedented to this day. The number of wins in his careers is still a mystery due to faulty recordkeeping, but the number of wins ranges from 539 to 628 wins.
After his career on the track came to an end, Murphy used his earnings from his races and decided to invest in real estate as well as investing in his own racehorse. Also, he decided to venture in vaudeville and began traveling with them. It was assumed that this career choice was not Murphy’s idea and that he may have been coerced into this form of entertainment. His last few years were not very glorious as he developed a drinking problem, and with trying to lose weight to get back to his riding weight, he acquired various medical issues. Isaac Murphy passed away February 12th, 1896 from pneumonia-related issues.
Blazing a trail of his own, in a sport dominated by white athletes, Murphy had to endure and prevail. From the Jim Crow laws, unfair segregation and racism within the sport, Isaac Murphy persevered and succeeded. As a result of this, Isaac Burns Murphy was the first jockey to be inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame.
From NY to Kentucky, there are quite a few memorials and pieces of derby history to be found. The Isaac Murphy Memorial Art Garden is located Lexington Kentucky, and represents the life of the late jockey, with visual masterpieces, striking flowers, and performance areas. Within the Garden, there is a 16-foot, 4000-pound statue of Murphy that was recently erected in June of this year. So on your next road trip or layover make sure to venture out.