Horseracing in the United States was born on the farmlands of the nation’s Southern states and in border states like Kentucky where African Americans dominated the workforce of the slavery-era.
In post-Reconstruction America, most would continue farm work to earn a living.
Some, however, were fortunate to care for livestock, among them horses. Fittingly, they dominated the early days of American racing as its jockeys and stable hands. But one African American jockey, dominant in his own time, remains dominant today: Isaac Burns Murphy.
Murphy is a Hall of Fame jockey born at the start of the American Civil War on April 16, 1861 in Fayette County, near Frankfort, Kentucky. Born on a farm, his parents, mother America and father Jerry Burns Skillman, a former slave, are believed to have been free.
His given name was either Jerry or Isaac Burns according to the Notable Kentucky African Americans database, a name he changed to Isaac Burns Murphy after he began his riding career.
Much of his early life is unknown, but it is known his father sought to enlist as a Union soldier during the Civil War. Though some claimed he was captured and died in a prisoner-of-war camp, his place of death was Camp Nelson, KY, a recruitment and training area for black Union enlistees located within the slave-holding state.
Following the death of her husband, Murphy’s mother moved to Lexington where they lived with her father, Green Murphy.
In the post-Civil War era of Reconstruction when black slaves had become free, the demand was strong for farm labor in the rural, then far Western, part of the United States.
Murphy’s mother was believed to have contracted tuberculosis when Isaac was young. Ill and with meager financial resources, she sent young Isaac to work at a local farm in his early teens where he would be apprenticed as a jockey.
Horseracing, flat racing as it was (and is) called in England to distinguish it from steeplechase racing, was growing in popularity in post-Civil War America. What started as a bragging rights “my horse is better than your horse” pastime run on cleared ovals among farmers was developing in America.
Black jockeys dominate racing’s early days
The first Kentucky Derby in 1875 was won over 1 1/2 miles. The current “classic” distance of 1 1/4 miles did not become the standard until 1896. Black 19-year-old jockey Oliver Lewis guided Aristedes to victory in that race, that jockey’s only Kentucky Derby. The 2:37 time was a world record for that distance. The crowd at Churchill Downs was a huge…10,000 fans. Today’s Kentucky Derby draws upwards of 170,000 racegoers to Churchill Downs.
In that initial Derby, 13 of the 15 jockeys were black men. The pattern of mostly black jockeys and virtually all black stable staff would continue into the turn of the century since most farm caretakers of horses were black and knew the horses they cared for far better than their owners.
This was the world Isaac Burns entered when he raced for the first time as an apprentice at age 14, coincidentally during that first Kentucky Derby year of 1875.
Burns would add his maternal grandfather’s name to his own and begin a riding career that would bring him wins, wealth and international fame.
A legendary riding career
Murphy’s jockey career took off in 1879 when he won both the Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs and the Travers Stakes, the “Midsummer Derby” at Saratoga, NY, both on a horse named Falsetto. Though he never again would win the Travers, he would win the Clark three more times: in 1884 on Buchanan, 1885 on Bersan and 1890 on Riley, all horses with different owners and trainers.
His signature year almost certainly was 1884. That year, in addition to the Clark Handicap, he won the inaugural American Derby at Chicago’s Washington Park Race Track riding Modesty. It was a race he would win the next two years (Volante, 1885 and Silver Cloud 1896) and again in 1888 (Emperor of Norfolk). He would win the 1884 Kentucky Oaks for three-year-old fillies on Modesty and, the following day, the Kentucky Derby on Buchanan.
He remains the only jockey to win the Clark Handicap, the Kentucky Oaks and the Kentucky Derby in the same year. In all, Murphy raced in the Kentucky Derby 11 times, winning three, also on Riley (1890) and Kingman (1891).
By 1890, Murphy’s fame was international. Some referred to him as the “Colored Archer,” a reference to leading English jockey Fred Archer. Others referred to Archer as the “White Murphy.”
Murphy prospered. He married Lucy Carr. Their home remained in Lexington, but they are known to have owned property in Chicago. At the height of his fame, Murphy’s contracts earned him up to $10,000 a year, approximately $450,000 dollars today.
While Murphy’s racing prowess is unquestionable, he was not without flaws. He was said to have suffered from alcoholism and once was suspended for falling from a horse during a race, supposedly for being intoxicated.
The official reason for that sanction is disputed by the recently deceased Pellom McDaniels III, PhD. McDaniels served as curator of African American collections at the Emory University’s Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library. He authored The Prince of Jockeys, a biography of Murphy. He claimed his research demonstrates Murphy was drugged.
Murphy becomes the first Hall of Fame jockey
Murphy died Feb. 12, 1896 at only 35. Most reports list his cause of his death as heart failure, others claim pneumonia. Initially, he was interred at The Cemetery of the Union Benevolent Society No. 2, also known as African Cemetery No. 2, in Lexington.
It is possible both Murphy and his father were buried in the same cemetery. Many of the Union soldiers who trained and died at Camp Nelson, KY were buried there, most in unmarked graves.
In 1967, Murphy’s remains were moved to the former gravesite of Man o’ War. In 1978, his remains were again moved, this time to the Kentucky Horse Park. His wife remained in Lexington until her own death Feb. 24, 1910.
Murphy was the first jockey inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame at its inception in 1955.
Some claim he is the greatest Thoroughbred jockey of all time. That claim would depend on how greatness is measured, by winning percentage or total wins.
Over the course of his career, Murphy claimed he had a record of 628 wins in 1,412 starts, a 44 percent strike rate. Records of the time were incomplete, and his official record was later amended to 538 wins in 1,538 starts, a 34 percent strike rate.
Whichever is accurate still remains the highest strike rate in the history of horseracing. In modern racing, a strike rate of 17 percent or higher is considered exceptional. Fellow Hall of Fame jockey Eddie Arcaro has said, “There is no chance that his record of winning [percentage] will ever be surpassed.”
The Isaac Burns Murphy Award is still presented annually by the National Turf Writers And Broadcasters to the jockey with the highest winning percentage.
For those who measure wins as the mark of greatness, the current all-time leader is Russell Baze, a Canadian native who retired in 2016 after garnering 12,842 wins in 53,578 starts, a 24 percent strike rate. Baze spent much of his career based at Golden Gate Fields, near San Francisco. Though he is also a member of the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame (1999), Baze never rode in the signature races that marked Murphy’s career, including the Kentucky Oaks and Derby.
The end of the black jockey era
In his later years, Murphy got fewer rides and fewer wins. His fading career dovetailed with the fading presence of American jockeys of African descent. He left the sport a few years before his death.
Jimmy Winkfield, another Kentucky native, would be the last African American jockey to guide winners in the Kentucky Derby. He rode His Eminence and Alan-A-Dale to victories in 1901 and 1902. Winkfield would leave racing—and America—to become a successful trainer in France.
The decline of the presence of black jockeys and other horsemen coincides with that time in the early 20th century when African Americans left menial, usually low-paying farm work for the urban cities in the North in search of greater acceptance and economic opportunity.
For the better part of the last century, the contribution of black jockeys faded into Brigadoon-like mist. Scholarly and literary materials existed but were not widely known save to those inside what has grown to be a multi-billion-dollar industry.
That has begun to change.
Those forgotten jockeys of a bygone era are now ensconced in the National Museum and Racing Hall of Fame in Saratoga, NY. Extensive photographic archives are available from the Kentucky Derby Museum at Churchill Downs in Louisville, KY. Scholarly materials are available at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, Emory University in Atlanta, GA and other universities.
In 1973, the city of Lexington took control of African Cemetery No. 2 and incorporated the cemetery in 1979 to save it. The cemetery was added to the National Register of Historic places in 2004.
The International Museum of the Horse located in the Kentucky Horse Park is the current site of Isaac Burns Murphy’s internment. It is compiling a history of African Americans in the horse industry that includes a website and a permanent exhibit, “Black Horsemen of the Kentucky Turf.”
In the future, it seems far more likely wealthier African Americans will participate in racing as owners rather than as jockeys or stable workers. There are now some, though few, successful black trainers, among them Uriah St. Lewis, who saddled Discreet Lover in the 2018 Breeders’ Cup Classic.
More recently, Jerry Dixon Jr. reminded racing fans worldwide of the contribution of black horsemen in the stables, going viral in a video with the horse he lovingly grooms, Kentucky Derby winner Rich Strike.
Whatever success a new generation of African American horsemen may enjoy, however, it is almost certain they will never achieve the same level of accomplishment at their own equine craft as did jockey Isaac Burns Murphy.
Special thanks to Chris Goodlett, Director of Curatorial & Educational Affairs and Rachel Collier,Director of Communications, both of the Kentucky Derby Museum for their assistance in preparing this article.