Isaac Burns Murphy was born April 16, 1861 on a farm Frankfort, Kentucky. According to biographer, Pellom McDaniels III, this young man was one of the “most dynamic jockeys of his era. McDaniels in his definitive book on Murphy as a jockey, The Prince of Jockeys: The Life of Isaac Burns Murphy, Mr. Murphy was an prominent figure, despite obstacles, – not just in sports, but in the social, political, and cultural consciousness of African Americans.
During his brief life (1861-1896), Isaac Burns Murphy was one of the most successful thoroughbred horse jockeys in American history. About the time Isaac was twelve years old, his mother introduced him to Eli Jordan, an African American horse trainer at the farm where she worked. Jordan noticed Isaac;s small build and began grooming his protege to become a horse jockey. When Isaac was 14, he changed his name to Isaac Burns Murphy to honor his grandfather.
The Rider, the Man
In 1884 Murphy won the American Derby in Chicago, Illinois, which was at the time the most prestigious race in the nation. He would win the American Derby 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 the first three-time winner.
Isaac Murphy counted that he’d won 628 of his total 1,412 races. In one his most calculated races, according to author McDaniels, on June 25, 1890, Murphy raced against white jockey Ed “Snapper” Garrison, during the era of Jim Crow segregation, to determine who was the better jockey. Murphy won by a heart-stopping first place finish. He was the “man” of legend for black folks back then and later white jockeys and scholars acknowledged his skill and a first -rate jockey.
Murphy competed at the Monmouth Handicap, in New Jersey just a few months later. Suspiciously, he rode poorly during the race and at the post-race inspection he fell off his horse and was accused of being drunk while riding; something he had never done before. However, he was suspended for 30 days, ever though his intoxication was never proven. Researchers agree now that this was to discredit Isaac Murphy. Forensic investigations done later posit he may have been poisoned, but the culprit(s) were never named.
The Jockey Murphy never re-gained his status as “the prince of jockeys.” After many difficult post-racing years, he died of pneumonia at 34 years old on February 12, 1896.