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Isaac Burns Murphy

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Isaac Burns Murphy
Isaac B. Murphy, c.1885
Born(1861-01-06)January 6, 1861
Clark County, Kentucky, U.S.
DiedFebruary 16, 1896(1896-02-16) (aged 35)
Lexington, Kentucky, U.S.
Resting placeThe Kentucky Horse Park
Major racing wins
Clark Handicap (1879, 1884, 1885, 1890)
Travers Stakes (1879)
Saratoga Cup (1881, 1886)
Latonia Derby (1883, 1884, 1885, 1886, 1891)
American Derby (1884, 1885, 1886, 1888)
Illinois Derby (1884)
Kentucky Oaks (1884)
Alabama Stakes (1885, 1889)
Champion Stakes (1886, 1890)
First Special Stakes (1887, 1888, 1889)
Brooklyn Derby (1888)
Foam Stakes (1888)
Second Special Stakes (1888)
Jerome Handicap (1889)
Freehold Stakes (1890)
Suburban Handicap (1890)
Tidal Stakes (1890)
Gazelle Handicap (1892)
Mermaid Stakes (1892)

American Classic Race wins:
Kentucky Derby (1884, 1890, 1891)

United States Racing Hall of Fame (1955)
Isaac Murphy Award
Isaac Murphy Handicap at Arlington Park
Significant horses
Buchanan, Emperor of Norfolk, Falsetto,
Firenze, Kingman, Kingston, Leonatus, Riley,
Salvator, Silver Cloud

Isaac Burns Murphy (January 6, 1861 – February 16, 1896) was an American Hall of Fame jockey, considered one of the greatest riders in American Thoroughbred horse racing history. He won three runnings of the Kentucky Derby and was the first jockey to be inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame at its creation in 1955.[1]



Early life


Isaac Burns Murphy was born into slavery on January 1, 1861, in Clark County, Kentucky.[2] His mother America Murphy worked as a house slave on the Pleasant Green farm owned by David Tanner until the fall of 1864 when records indicate that she became a refugee at the Union Army depot at Camp Nelson. Isaac's father Jerry had escaped from bondage and enlisted in the 114th US Colored Troops at Camp Nelson in the summer of 1864 and would fight in some of the most decisive battles of 1865. Jerry died at a Confederate prisoner-of-war camp[3]

In 1867, America and Isaac moved in with family friend Eli Jordan, a man who would become one of the most important figures in Isaac's life. Eli was a prominent horse trainer who worked for the Williams and Owings stables[2] and, according to historian Pellom McDaniels: "Isaac may have been the son Eli never had, and he impressed on the boy his definition of manhood, the importance of prudence and honesty, and the benefits of being consistent in all things."[3]

Murphy began his racing career riding for Williams and Owings stables in 1875 at the age of 14.[4][5] What followed was one of the most illustrious careers in the history of the sport, during which Murphy became one of the highest paid athletes and among the most famous black men in America.[3] Murphy rode in eleven Kentucky Derbies, winning three times: on Buchanan in 1884, Riley in 1890, and Kingman in 1891. Kingman was owned by Jacobin Stables (co-owners, Preston Kinzea Stone and Dudley Allen) and trained by Dudley Allen, and was the first horse co-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).

Salvator vs. Tenny


Among the most famous races of Murphy's career was a match race at Sheepshead Bay on June 25, 1890. At the height of his career, Murphy rode Salvator to a dead-heat victory over Tenny and his rival jockey Edward "Snapper" Garrison. The race was considered to be one of the most thrilling races of all time, in which the most dominant black jockey squared off against one of the most dominant white jockeys, head-to-head. The race is also notable for being credited with the first instance of a "photo finish," which was taken by photographer John C. Hemment.[2][3]

Poisoning controversy


On August 26, 1890, at the Monmouth Handicap, Isaac fell off his horse Firenzi after crossing the finish line in last place. Given that Murphy and Firenzi had been the presumed favorites, along with long-standing rumors about Isaac's ritual of drinking champagne before races, stories began to circulate that Isaac had been racing drunk. Following the incident, Isaac was suspended from racing pending an investigation.[3]

Isaac strongly refuted the claim, maintaining that he had been drugged. Given Isaac's longstanding reputation as a clean rider, some members of the press defended the jockey and called the accusations unfounded. Further adding to the scandal, it was found that bettors had uncharacteristically wagered heavily against Firenzi, betting instead on William Lakeland's Tea Tray as the race drew near. Among those betting on Tea Tray was notable race "plunger" Dave Johnson who had lost $25,000 (over $750,000, adjusted for inflation) betting against Murphy on Salvator earlier that year.

For the rest of his life, Isaac maintained that he had been poisoned and, although he would race again, the accusation of drunkenness tainted the rest of his career.[3]

Death and legacy


Murphy died of heart failure on February 16, 1896, in Lexington, Kentucky. While his funeral was attended by over 500 members of the community, 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 and in 1967, Murphy was reinterred at the old Man o' War burial site.[6] 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.[6]

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."[6] By a later calculation of incomplete records, his record stands at 530 wins in 1,538 rides, which still makes his win rate 34%.[7]

In 1955, he was inducted into the Jockey's Hall of Fame at Saratoga, New York.[5] In 1940, Murphy was honored with one of the 33 dioramas featured at the American Negro Exposition in Chicago.[8] 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).


  1. ^ Isaac Murphy at the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame Archived 2011-01-23 at the Wayback Machine Retrieved 2011-08-26.
  2. ^ a b c Mooney, Katherine C. (2014-05-19). Race Horse Men. Harvard University Press. doi:10.4159/harvard.9780674419551. ISBN 978-0-674-41955-1.
  3. ^ a b c d e f McDaniels III, Pellom (2013-09-16). The Prince of Jockeys. University Press of Kentucky. doi:10.5810/kentucky/9780813142715.001.0001. ISBN 978-0-8131-4271-5.
  4. ^ "Isaac Burns Murphy, American jockey". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2021-03-26.
  5. ^ a b "Isaac Burns Murphy, Horse Jokey born". African American Registry. Retrieved 2021-03-26.
  6. ^ a b c Reed, David (May 5, 1967). "High Tributes Paid To Murphy". The Lexington Herald – via University of Kentucky.
  7. ^ Hotaling, Edward (1999). The Great Black Jockeys: The Lives and Times of the Men Who Dominated America's First National Sport. Three Rivers Press. p. 272. ISBN 978-1400080700 – via Google Books.
  8. ^ "American Negro Exposition 1863-1940, July 4 to Sept. 2, 1940, Chicago, IL" (PDF). Living History of Illinois. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2017-03-03. Retrieved 2021-03-26.

Additional resources

  • Mooney, Katherine C. (2023).Isaac Murphy: The Rise and Fall of a Black Jockey. Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0300254426.