Black History Month: Isaac Murphy Became One Of The Best Jockeys In History

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This February, Sports Illustrated is celebrating Black History Month by spotlighting a different iconic athlete or group of athletes every day. Today, SI looks back on the legacy of Isaac Murphy. 

Isaac Murphy became the jockey with the most Kentucky Derby victories when he crossed the finish line in first in 1891—the third time he had done so in his career. 

He held that distinction until 1948, 52 years after his death. 

In the 19th century, African-American jockeys were commonplace, with 13 of the 15 horses at the inaugural Kentucky Derby in 1875 mounted by black riders. In fact, 15 of the first 28 Kentucky Derbies were won by African-American jockeys.

But racism—down to the grassroots level—slowly prevented African-Americans from competing in the sport starting in the 20th century. From 1921 to 2000, a paltry zero African-American jockeys competed in the Kentucky Derby.

That's started to change as of late, with the emergence of riders like Deshawn Parker, who has boasted more than 4,000 career victories and was the 54th-winningest jockey in 2013. But even with individual examples of success, African-American representation across the sport pales in comparison to their 19th century numbers—or, broadly, African-American demographics in the United States. 

African-American representation in the sport during the 19th century did not, of course, mean equal treatment or access. Murphy and his African-American counterparts were systemically railroaded, with white opponents colluding in an attempt to ensure an African-American man did not finish as champion. The infrastructural racism that boiled to the sport's surface in full force by the turn of the 20th century began to rear its ugly head from as early as the first Kentucky Derby. 

By the 1890s, Murphy—then the consensus best jockey of all-time—had plenty of opponents who routinely spread disinformation in an effort to get race tracks to disallow Murphy from competing.

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Still, Murphy pushed ahead. The son of a former slave became one of America's most recognizable athletes during an era when horse racing was one of the country's pastimes. Murphy's 44% win rate and 628 career wins still hold up in the history books—and so does his status as one of the best jockeys to ever race.

From the SI Vault:

"Honest Isaac's Legacy The Greatest U.S. Jockey Of The 19th Century Was A Black Man, Isaac Murphy," by Jim Bolus. (April 29, 1996)