Murphy rode some of the finest horses of his day, including Freeland, Leonatus and Checkmate, but his favorite was Emperor of Norfolk, a Hall of Famer who excelled in 1887 and 1888. "I tell you, he was a wonder," Murphy said, "and when [he was] in the best of condition I have yet to see the horse that, in my opinion, could defeat him."
An incident with Emperor of Norfolk, however, cast a shadow over Murphy's career. Following an unsatisfactory ride aboard the colt in an 1887 outing at Monmouth Park, in New Jersey, Murphy was accused by other riders and track officials of having drunk too much champagne before the race. "All jockeys drink champagne," declared a racing publication known as The Spirit of the Times, rising to Murphy's defense. "It often forms their only stimulant of victuals and drink when they are reducing. But we saw as much and maybe more of Murphy and we failed to perceive any intoxication."
Murphy won the 1890 Kentucky Derby with Riley and then rode Salvator to victory in a celebrated match race against Tenny on June 25 of that year. But two months later the jockey's reputation suffered a severe blow when he finished out of the money aboard the favored Firenze in the Monmouth Handicap. Murphy, dizzy and swaying, nearly fell off Firenze several times during the race and did topple off afterward.
Charged with drunkenness, Murphy was suspended by the judges for an unsatisfactory ride. The tearful jockey said that he hadn't been drunk but had been weak from a sudden weight loss and had suffered a severe attack of dizziness. There was also speculation that he had been mysteriously drugged, which Murphy later came to believe.
Nonetheless, The New York Times castigated Murphy for his performance. "A popular idol was shattered at Monmouth Park yesterday," the newspaper said. "That Isaac Murphy, who has always been considered the most gentlemanly as well as the most honest of jockeys, should have made such an exhibition of himself as he did was past belief.... Murphy's disgraceful exhibition was due to overindulgence in champagne, a habit which has in times past gotten the better of him, but never to lead to quite so sad an exhibition of himself as he made on the track yesterday."
Murphy's popularity as a rider declined afterward, and he never really got over the Monmouth incident. Although he won 32 races, including his third Kentucky Derby, in 1891, he won only six races in 1892 and four in 1893. He was winless with seven mounts in 1894, a year in which he was temporarily suspended for allegedly being drunk while riding a horse named Myrtle II. The next year Murphy triumphed just twice in 20 rides. On Nov. 13, 1895, at the Kentucky Association track, he rode for the last lime, and he went out a winner on a fainthearted 8-1 shot named Tupta. One account said Murphy "nursed that famous quitter and landed him a winner."
Unlike many old-time jockeys who squandered their money, the sensible Murphy was careful with his. In the late 1880s he built a house overlooking the backstretch of the Kentucky Association track. He also owned a small string of racehorses.
By his own account, Murphy won aboard 628 of his 1,412 mounts, for a .445 winning percentage, though racing guides of his time and other sources put his winning percentage closer to .333. Either way, it's a brilliant record. Eddie Arcaro, considered the greatest U.S. jockey of the 20th century, had a winning percentage of only .198.
A few months after Murphy retired, he came down with pneumonia. Early in the evening of Feb. 11, 1896, his wife called a doctor, and soon after midnight Murphy died. He was probably 35 years old. He was buried in Lexington's No. 2 Cemetery, where a wooden cross marked his grave. The cross rotted, and in 1909 friends erected a concrete marker. In time the cemetery was abandoned, and Murphy's grave was overgrown with vines and weeds.
Thanks to the efforts of Lexington journalist Frank Borries Jr., Murphy's long-neglected grave was found, and in 1967 the jockey's remains were reinterred in a place of honor at the Man o' War Park in Lexington, near the grave of the legendary racehorse for whom the park is named. Ten years later Murphy's remains and those of Man o' War were moved again, this time to the Kentucky Horse Park, near Lexington. There thousands of visitors each year may pause at his grave and wonder about the great black jockey known as Honest Isaac.