Isaac Burns Murphy (April 16, 1861 – February 12, 1896) was an African-American Hall of Fame jockey, who is considered one of the greatest (by many accounts, THE greatest) riders in American Thoroughbred horse racing history. Murphy won three Kentucky Derbies.
Burns’s father, a free black man, was a bricklayer and his mother was a laundrywoman. During the civil war his father joined the Union Army and died in a Confederate prisoner of war camp. After his father’s death, Burns and his mother moved to live with her father, Green Murphy, a bell ringer and auction crier, in Lexington, Kentucky. Isaac Burns changed his last name to Murphy once he started racing horses as a tribute to his grandfather.
After the move to Lexington, Kentucky, Burns’ mother worked at the Richard and Owings Racing Stable. Isaac Murphy started accompanying his mother to work and he was noticed by a black trainer named Eli Jordon, because of his small size. The trainer prepared Burns for his first race at age fourteen. His first winning race was on September 15, 1875 at the Lexington Crab Orchard. He rode upright and urged his mount on with words and a spur rather than the whip. By the end of 1876, Burns, now racing under the name, Murphy had won eleven races at the Lexington’s Kentucky Association track. In 1877 he won 19 races and rode in his first Kentucky Derby and received fourth place. His 1879 win at the Travers Stakes at Saratoga Springs brought him national attention for the first time.
Isaac Murphy rode in eleven Kentucky Derbies, winning three times: on Buchanan in 1884, Riley in 1890, and Kingman in 1891. Kingman was owned and trained by Dudley Allen, and is the only horse owned by an African-American to win the Derby. Murphy is the only jockey to have won the Kentucky Derby, the Kentucky Oaks, and the Clark Handicap in the same year (1884). He was called the “Colored Archer,” a reference to Fred Archer, a prominent English jockey at the time.
The Goodwin Champions series of trading cards , was issued by Goodwin & Company in 1888 to promote Old Judge and Gypsy Queen Cigarettes. The series of 50 cards depicts athletes in various disciplines.
According to his own calculations Murphy won 628 of his 1,412 starts—a 44% victory rate which has never been equaled, and a record about which Hall of Fame jockey Eddie Arcaro said: “There is no chance that his record of winning will ever be surpassed. By a later calculation of incomplete records his record stands at 530 wins in 1,538 rides, which still makes his win rate 34%. (translation: we tried to screw up the record so that somebody, anyone other than a black man will hold it, but no one will ever obtain 34% either).
During the height of his career Murphy received an average yearly salary of $10,000-20,000 excluding bonuses, making him the highest paid jockey in the United States. He lived in a mansion in Lexington. It is believed that Murphy was the first African American to own a racehorse. He owned several racehorses and invested in real estate as well.
I stumbled across one particular historic photo, says Patsi B. Tollinger describing Jockey Isaac Murphy, the subject of her biography PERFECT TIMING. The picture confounded me. Here’s the scene: Six men are dressed in fine suits and hats, wearing the old-fashioned ‘bling’ of the 1890s (pocket-watches). The date on the picture is August 1890, and even though some states actually had laws forbidding interracial socializing, five of these men are white and one is black. The lone black man is Isaac Murphy, and as I soon learned, the picture was taken at a party given in his honor.
On June 25, 1890, Murphy raced in the most memorable contest of his life. Matched against a white counterpart, jockey Ed “Snapper” Garrison; the race would settle the debate as to which rider was the better jockey. In a contest that had definite racial overtones, Murphy was victorious.
Murphy’s popularity soon fell after this race. In August, 1890, just two month’s after Murphy’s victory, he was suspended for racing while intoxicated after falling off his horse in a race. In the following years he also ran and won fewer races as he battled both alcohol abuse and weight gain. In 1895 Murphy was suspended for the second time, because of intoxication. That same year he failed to win a single race and was forced to retirement. Murphy died three months later from pneumonia. At the height of his career Issac Burns Murphy was the best jockey of his time and still holds the best winning percentage of jockeys.
At its creation in 1955, Isaac Burns Murphy was the first jockey to be inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame.
Murphy died of pneumonia in 1896 in Lexington, Kentucky, and over time his unmarked grave in African Cemetery No. 2 was forgotten. During the 1960s Frank B. Borries Jr., a University of Kentucky press specialist, spent three years searching for the grave site. In 1967, Murphy was reinterred at the old Man o’ War burial site. With the building of the Kentucky Horse Park, his remains were moved to be buried again next to Man o’ War at the entrance to the park.
Only six athletes/figures have cards in both the original Goodwin Champions set released in 1888 and the one that was released in 2011. Isaac Murphy is one of those six.
Since 1995, the National Turf Writers Association has given the Isaac Murphy Award to the jockey with the highest winning percentage for the year in North American racing (from a minimum of 500 mounts).
The Isaac Murphy Stakes (formerly the American Derby, which Murphy won on four occasions in the 1880s) was initiated in 1997 at Chicago’s Arlington International Racecourse.