In the pantheon of sports, the number of African-Americans who have made their mark in horse racing is few and far between. But though diminutive in stature, one black man became a giant among jockeys of all races past, present and future.
On April 16, 1861, Isaac Burns was born on a farm near Frankfort, Ky., to a bricklaying, free black man and a woman employed as a laundrywoman.
After joining the Union Army during the Civil War, Burns’ father died in a Confederate prisoner of war camp, prompting a move by Burns’ family to the residence of his maternal grandfather, Green Murphy, an auction crier and bell ringer, in Lexington.
Subsequently, Burns’ mother took on a job at the Richard and Owings Racing Stable, where Burns would begin accompanying her to work. Over the course of time, Burns would eventually get noticed by a black trainer named Eli Jordon, who prepared Burns for his first race at the age of 14.
Riding upright, and urging his mount on with words and a spur rather than a whip, Burns won his first race on September 15, 1875 at the Lexington Crab Orchard.
By the end of 1876, Burns, who was now racing under the name Murphy as a tribute to his grandfather, had won 11 races at Lexington’s Kentucky Association track. The following year, Murphy won 19 races and placed fourth in his first Kentucky Derby ride.
But the national spotlight would shine on Murphy for the first time when he rode to victory in the 1879 Travers Stakes in Saratoga Springs.
Five years later, on May 27, 1884, Murphy wound up in the winner’s circle at Churchill Downs, his first Kentucky Derby win. The same year would also see Murphy ride to victory in Chicago’s American Derby, the most prestigious race in the nation at the time.
Throughout his legendary career, Murphy rode 628 winners in 1,412 mounts, including three Kentucky Derby winners (1884, 1890, 1891), four American Derby winners (1884, 1885, 1886, 1888) and five Latonia Derby winners.
During his horse racing prime in the late 1880s, Murphy received an average salary of close to $20,000 per year, excluding bonuses, making him the highest paid athlete in the United States. He lived in a mansion in Lexington, and it is believed Murphy was the first African-American to own a racehorse.
On June 25, 1890, Murphy raced in the most memorable contest of his life. Matched against white counterpart, Ed “Snapper” Garrison, Murphy was victorious in a race that had definitive racial overtones and settled the debate as to which rider was the better jockey.
Battling alcohol abuse and weight gain over the next several years, Murphy’s popularity fell as he rode in and won fewer races and was suspended twice for racing while intoxicated.
In 1896, Murphy was forced into retirement after failing to win a single race, and died just three months later, on February 12, 1896 from pneumonia.
Nevertheless, Murphy’s legacy in horse racing was secure.
His 44 percent winning percentage 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.”
Murphy competed in eleven Kentucky Derby’s, becoming the first jockey to ride three Derby winners: "Buchanan" in 1884, "Riley" in 1890 and "Kingman" in 1891. "Kingman" was owned and trained by Dudley Allen, the only African-American racehorse owner to train a Kentucky Derby winner.
Upon its creation in 1955, Murphy was the first jockey inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame.
Since 1995, the National Turf Writers Association has given the Isaac Murphy Award to the jockey with the highest winning percentage for a given year in North American racing.
The official Kentucky Derby website states, “Isaac Murphy is considered one of the greatest race riders in American History.”
Murphy’s remains are buried next to Man o’ War, one of the greatest thoroughbreds in horse racing history, at the entrance to Kentucky Horse Park.