Black jockeys were ubiquitous on U.S. racetracks in the 19th
century. Fourteen of the 15 riders in the inaugural Kentucky
Derby, in 1875, were black, and 15 of the first 28 Derbies were
won by black riders. Several factors, such as racial
discrimination and an absence of opportunities to learn to ride,
have led to the virtual disappearance of black jockeys today.
But in the 19th century, blacks who grew up on or around
plantations and farms were naturally drawn to horses, and many
One of them was Isaac Murphy, arguably the best jockey of the
19th century, black or white. At the time of his death 100 years
ago, a newspaper obituary said that "Honest Isaac" would be an
appropriate epitaph for Murphy. The jockey once told a fellow
rider with a shady reputation, "They get you to pull a horse in
a selling race, and when it comes to a stake race, they get
Isaac to ride. A jockey that'll sell out to one man will sell
out to another. Just be honest and you'll have no trouble and
plenty of money."
Turfman L.P. Tarlton, a noted trainer of the day, paid Murphy
the following tribute after the jockey's death: "So well
recognized was it that Isaac could not be corrupted, that very
few had the temerity to ever suggest wrong-doing to him, and
whenever he had the least suspicion he would simply return the
colors and refuse to ride. On one or two occasions he was put on
a 'dead one.' The first time he vented his indignation on the
horse and punished it so severely as to destroy its future
usefulness. This he afterward referred to with regret if not
mortification. In the other cases he boldly notified the judges
of his suspicions."
Despite Murphy's integrity in the saddle, his career was not
without controversy, after several accusations of riding while
intoxicated. Murphy was plagued by a weight problem, and when
exhausted from trying to lose weight too quickly, he would drink
champagne to perk himself up.
During his 20-year career he triumphed three times in the
Kentucky Derby, a record not equaled until 1930 and not broken
until 1948. He won 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
three of his American Derby winners for owner E.J. (Lucky)
Baldwin, who paid the jockey handsomely for his services:
$10,000 annually to guarantee first call. During Murphy's peak
years he reportedly earned a then munificent $15,000 to $20,000
A superb judge of pace, Murphy liked to play it close, and
frequently he would ask his mounts to put forth just enough
effort to win. Those tight finishes came to be known as
"I seen Isaac Murphy ride when he was comin' in such a close
finish when he had to take his whip and put his whip under the
chin of a horse and make him throw his head up to win," said
Nate Cantrell, a black trainer who was still working at the age
of 96, in 1975. "He was just that way.... He didn't have two
words to say to nobody. Everything about him was a gentleman."
Murphy was born in the bluegrass horse racing country of central
Kentucky, probably in 1861. He was the son of James Burns, a
freedman and a bricklayer who enlisted in the Union forces and
died in a Confederate prison camp during the Civil War. Young
Isaac was taught the art of riding by a noted black trainer,
"Uncle" Eli Jordan, and he rode for the first time
professionally on May 22, 1875, at about the age of 14, at the
inaugural meeting of the Louisville Jockey Club, which would
later become Churchill Downs. Isaac's first victory came the
following year, on Sept. 15, when he rode Glentina, a 2-year-old
filly, at the Kentucky Association track in Lexington. In the
early part of his career he weighed just 74 pounds and rode as
By the time he rode in his first Kentucky Derby, in 1877, he had
taken the surname of his maternal grandfather, Green Murphy, at
the request of his mother. In that Derby Murphy finished fourth
aboard Vera Cruz. Later that fall, in Louisville, he rode Vera
Cruz to his first victory in a major stakes race.
In 1884 Murphy swept the three most important races at the
Churchill Downs spring meeting--the Kentucky Oaks, with Modesty,
and the Kentucky Derby and the Clark Stakes, with Buchanan, a
horse he didn't want to ride. Murphy had signed a contract with
Buchanan's owner, Capt. William Cottrill, to ride the colt in
the Derby, but he tried to back out of the commitment because
Buchanan was wild and prone to act up in the saddling area and
on the track. Cottrill took the matter to track officials, and
they ruled that in the Derby, Murphy would have to ride
Buchanan--or no horse at all. Faced with the possibility of
being suspended for the entire meeting, Murphy took the mount
and brought Buchanan, a maiden, home a winner. He won the Derby
again in 1890 with Riley, and the next year he won his third,
and last, Derby with Kingman.
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."
An incident with Emperor of Norfolk, however, cast a shadow over
Murphy's career. Following an unsatisfactory ride aboard the
colt in an 1887 outing at Monmouth Park, in New Jersey, Murphy
was accused by other riders and track officials of having drunk
too much champagne before the race. "All jockeys drink
champagne," declared a racing publication known as The Spirit of
the Times, rising to Murphy's defense. "It often forms their
only stimulant of victuals and drink when they are reducing. But
we saw as much and maybe more of Murphy and we failed to
perceive any intoxication."
Murphy won the 1890 Kentucky Derby with Riley and then rode
Salvator to victory in a celebrated match race against Tenny on
June 25 of that year. But two months later the jockey's
reputation suffered a severe blow when he finished out of the
money aboard the favored Firenze in the Monmouth Handicap.
Murphy, dizzy and swaying, nearly fell off Firenze several times
during the race and did topple off afterward.
Charged with drunkenness, Murphy was suspended by the judges for
an unsatisfactory ride. The tearful jockey said that he hadn't
been drunk but had been weak from a sudden weight loss and had
suffered a severe attack of dizziness. There was also
speculation that he had been mysteriously drugged, which Murphy
later came to believe.
Nonetheless, The New York Times castigated Murphy for his
performance. "A popular idol was shattered at Monmouth Park
yesterday," the newspaper said. "That Isaac Murphy, who has
always been considered the most gentlemanly as well as the most
honest of jockeys, should have made such an exhibition of
himself as he did was past belief.... Murphy's disgraceful
exhibition was due to overindulgence in champagne, a habit which
has in times past gotten the better of him, but never to lead to
quite so sad an exhibition of himself as he made on the track
Murphy's popularity as a rider declined afterward, and he never
really got over the Monmouth incident. Although he won 32 races,
including his third Kentucky Derby, in 1891, he won only six
races in 1892 and four in 1893. He was winless with seven mounts
in 1894, a year in which he was temporarily suspended for
allegedly being drunk while riding a horse named Myrtle II. The
next year Murphy triumphed just twice in 20 rides. On Nov. 13,
1895, at the Kentucky Association track, he rode for the last
time, and he went out a winner on a fainthearted 8-1 shot named
Tupta. One account said Murphy "nursed that famous quitter and
landed him a winner."
Unlike many old-time jockeys who squandered their money, the
sensible Murphy was careful with his. In the late 1880s he built
a house overlooking the backstretch of the Kentucky Association
track. He also owned a small string of racehorses.
By his own account, Murphy won aboard 628 of his 1,412 mounts,
for a .445 winning percentage, though racing guides of his time
and other sources put his winning percentage closer to .333.
Either way, it's a brilliant record. Eddie Arcaro, considered
the greatest U.S. jockey of the 20th century, had a winning
percentage of only .198.
A few months after Murphy retired, he came down with pneumonia.
Early in the evening of Feb. 11, 1896, his wife called a doctor,
and soon after midnight Murphy died. He was probably 35 years
old. He was buried in Lexington's No. 2 Cemetery, where a wooden
cross marked his grave. The cross rotted, and in 1909 friends
erected a concrete marker. In time the cemetery was abandoned,
and Murphy's grave was overgrown with vines and weeds.
Thanks to the efforts of Lexington journalist Frank Borries Jr.,
Murphy's long-neglected grave was found, and in 1967 the
jockey's remains were reinterred in a place of honor at the Man
o' War Park in Lexington, near the grave of the legendary
racehorse for whom the park is named. Ten years later Murphy's
remains and those of Man o' War were moved again, this time to
the Kentucky Horse Park, near Lexington. There thousands of
visitors each year may pause at his grave and wonder about the
great black jockey known as Honest Isaac.
Freelance writer Jim Bolus went to his first horse race at age
nine, in 1952, at Churchill Downs.