Isaac Burns Murphy Biography

Athlete (1861–1896)
African American jockey Isaac Burns Murphy repeatedly won the Kentucky Derby and was posthumously inducted into the National Museum of Racing's Hall of Fame.


Horse jockey Isaac Burns Murphy was born on April 16, 1861, in Frankfort, Kentucky. He won the Kentucky Derby for the first time in 1884 and also won the American Derby that year. Murphy won the Kentucky Derby again in 1890 and 1891. In 1895, he was suspended for intoxication. He died on February 12, 1896, in Lexington, Kentucky. In 1956, he was inducted in the National Museum of Racing's Hall of Fame.

Early Life

Born Isaac Burns on April 16, 1861, on a Kentucky farm near Frankfort, much of Isaac Burns Murphy's early life is shrouded in speculation and legend. There is conflicting research as to whether his parents were free or slaves and whether his father died as a Confederate POW or of “camp fever” (typhus). What is certain is that during his brief life, Isaac Burns Murphy was one of the most successful thoroughbred racing jockeys in history.

Sometime around 1864, Isaac’s mother moved the family to Lexington, Kentucky, to live with her father, Green Murphy, but around 1873 she became ill and feared her son might become an orphan. She introduced him to Eli Jordon, a black horse trainer at the stable where she worked, who immediately noticed Isaac’s small size. At 14, Isaac became a jockey and changed his name to Isaac Burns Murphy, in honor of his grandfather.

Early Success and a New Way of Racing

As a rider, Isaac Burns Murphy developed a unique style sitting upright in the saddle and using his words and occasionally his spurs to urge the horse on instead of the whip. Instead of riding the horse as hard as possible, he would develop a race strategy, pacing the horse through the field before moving into a favorable position to burst in front at the finish line.

Isaac Burns Murphy won his first race on September 15, 1875, at Lexington Crab Orchard. By the end of 1876, he had won 11 races, and the next year 19. Continuing his winning ways, in 1883 Murphy married Lucy Carr, who helped him build his profession as a jockey and businessman. She was with him through nearly all is career as chief supporter and confidant. 

Back on the racetrack, in 1884, Murphy won the American Derby in Chicago, Illinois, which was at the time the most prestigious race in the nation. He would repeat wins there in 1885, 1886 and 1888. On May 27, 1884, Murphy got his first Kentucky Derby win and would win twice more, in 1890 and 1891. He was the first jockey to win successive Derby races and was also its first three-time winner. 

One of the Greatest Jockeys of All Time

Isaac Burns Murphy’s career record is astounding by any measurement. Murphy often stated that he won 628 of his 1,412 races. Official records are incomplete, but later calculations record he had 539 wins in 1,538 rides, still an unprecedented 34-percent winning rate. At the height of his career, Murphy was averaging $15,000 a year, excluding bonuses, making him the highest-paid jockey in the United States at that time. This success allowed him to live comfortably in a large estate in Lexington, invest in real estate and own his own race horse.

In one his most storied contests, on June 25, 1890, Murphy raced against white jockey Ed “Snapper” Garrison to determine who was the better jockey. In an atmosphere of Jim Crow segregation and exclusion for many blacks, the race took on clear racial overtones. Murphy won in a close finish, which further divided the horse-racing community. 

Two months later, Murphy competed at the Monmouth Handicap, in New Jersey. He performed poorly during the race and at the post-race inspection he fell off his mount. Suspected of being drunk, he was suspended for 30 days, though intoxication was never proven. Later investigations indicated that he may have been poisoned.

Later Life

In the remaining years of his career, battles with weight gain forced Murphy into drastic diets that deteriorated his health, and his increasing losses led to allegations that he was a drunk. Murphy also began to feel the pressure of segregation and exclusion, not only in society, but in the racing community as well. Eventually, his health completely broke down and he died of pneumonia on February 12, 1896, at age 34.

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