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Issac Murphy was born on April 16, 1861, as Isaac Burns on a farm near Frankfort, Kentucky to parents James Burn and a mother whose name is unknown. Murphy was a decorated jockey and was honored as the first American jockey elected to Racing’s Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, New York. He is one of two black jockeys (Willie Simms is the other) to have been bestowed this honor.
Burns’s father James was a free black man who worked as a bricklayer and his mother was a laundrywoman. When the civil war began, his father joined the Union Army. He fought valiantly for his country only to end up dying in a confederate prison war camp. Moreover, after his father’s death and with the help of his mother, Burns moved to live with his maternal grandfather Green Murphy, a bell ringer and auction crier, in Lexington, Kentucky. It was here Burns changed his last name to Murphy once he started his racing career. The name change was a tribute to his grandfather.
After moving to Lexington, Kentucky, Murphy’s mother assisted her son in his profession by working at the Richard and Owings Racing Stable. Isaac Murphy would accompany his mother to work and one day was noticed by a black trainer named Eli Jordon because of his small stature. He subsequently trained Murphy for his first race at age fourteen. As a result, Murphy won his first race on September 15, 1875, at the Lexington Crab Orchard. Murphy took a more calming approach to motivate his horse during races. While riding upright, he urged his mount with words and a spur rather than a whip. By the end of 1876, Burns, now racing under the name Murphy, had won eleven races at Lexington’s Kentucky Association track. A year later, he won a total of 19 races and rode in his first Kentucky Derby, and received fourth. It was his win at Travers Stakes at Saratoga Springs in 1879 that brought him national attention for the first time.
Isaac Murphy’s first Kentucky Derby win came on May 27, 1884, at Churchill Downs. Two more victories would follow in 1890 and 1891. In 1884 the year of his Derby championship, Murphy would go on to win the American Derby in Chicago and it was a coveted win because at the time it was the most prestigious race in the nation. Furthermore, he would repeat this feat winning championships in 1885, 1886, and 1888. Throughout his illustrious career, Murphy rode 628 winners in his 1,412 mounts, including the three Kentucky Derby winners previously mentioned, four American Derby winners, and five Latonia Derby winners. Murphy’s legacy holds the best-winning average in history to date with better than 34 percent.
During the pinnacle 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 and was believed to be the first African American to own a racehorse. Murphy remained involved with horse racing by owning several racehorses. In addition, he invested in real estate.
With all the adulation Murphy received in his career, it didn’t mean his life was void of adversity. On June 25, 1890, Murphy raced in the most memorable contest of his life. He took on a white counterpart, jockey Ed “Snapper” Garrison, and the race would settle the debate as to which rider was the better jockey. In a contest that was filled with racial overtones, Murphy was victorious.
Murphy’s popularity fell after that race. In August 1890, just two months after his victory, Murphy fell off his horse during a race and was subsequently suspended due to being intoxicated. As the years passed he competed in fewer races as he battled alcohol abuse and weight gain. In 1895 Murphy continued his inebriated ways and was suspended for a second time. Not to mention, in that same year, he failed to win a single race and was forced into retirement. You would think that Murphy would succumb to cirrhosis of the liver with his copious drinking, but he died three months after his retirement due to pneumonia. At the height of his career, Issac Burns Murphy was the best jockey and still holds the best winning percentage of jockeys. The Isaac Murphy Stakes was initiated in 1997 at Chicago’s Arlington International Racecourse.