Black Jockeys were ubiquitous on U.S. racetracks in the 19th century. Fourteen of the 15 riders in the inaugural Kentucky Derby, in 1875, were black, and 15 of the first 28 Derbies were won by black riders. Several factors, such as racial discrimination and an absence of opportunities to learn to ride, have led to the virtual disappearance of black jockeys today. But in the 19th century, blacks who grew up on or around plantations and farms were naturally drawn to horses, and many became riders.
One of them was Isaac Murphy, arguably the best jockey of the 19th century, black or white. At the time of his death 100 years ago, a newspaper obituary said that "Honest Isaac" would be an appropriate epitaph for Murphy. The jockey once told a fellow rider with a shady reputation, "They get you to pull a horse in a selling race, and when it comes to a stake race, they get Isaac to ride. A jockey that'll sell out to one man will sell out to another. Just be honest and you'll have no trouble and plenty of money."
Turfman L.P. Tarlton, a noted trainer of the day, paid Murphy the following tribute after the jockey's death: "So well recognized was it that Isaac could not be corrupted, that very few had the temerity to ever suggest wrong-doing to him, and whenever he had the least suspicion he would simply return the colors and refuse to ride. On one or two occasions he was put on a 'dead one.' The first time he vented his indignation on the horse and punished it so severely as to destroy its future usefulness. This he afterward referred to with regret if not mortification. In the other cases he boldly notified the judges of his suspicions."
Despite Murphy's integrity in the saddle, his career was not without controversy, after several accusations of riding while intoxicated. Murphy was plagued by a weight problem, and when exhausted from trying to lose weight too quickly, he would drink champagne to perk himself up.
During his 20-year career he triumphed three times in the Kentucky Derby, a record not equaled until 1930 and not broken until 1948. He won the Latonia Derby (also called the Hindoo Stakes) five times; the Clark Stakes, in Louisville, four times; and the American Derby, in Chicago, four times. Murphy rode three of his American Derby winners for owner H.J. (Lucky) Baldwin, who paid the jockey handsomely for his services: $10,000 annually to guarantee first call. During Murphy's peak years he reportedly earned a then munificent $15,000 to $20,000 annually.
A superb judge of pace, Murphy liked to play it close, and frequently he would ask his mounts to put forth just enough effort to win. Those tight finishes came to be known as Murfinishes.
"I seen Isaac Murphy ride when he was comin' in such a close finish when he had to take his whip and put his whip under the chin of a horse and make him throw his head up to win," said Nate Cantrell, a black trainer who was still working at the age of 96, in 1975. "He was just that way.... He didn't have two words to say to nobody. Everything about him was a gentleman."
Murphy was born in the bluegrass horse racing country of central Kentucky, probably in 1861. He was the son of James Burns, a freedman and a bricklayer who enlisted in the Union forces and died in a Confederate prison camp during the Civil War. Young Isaac was taught the art of riding by a noted black trainer, "Uncle" Eli Jordan, and he rode for the first time professionally on May 22, 1875, at about the age of 14, at the inaugural meeting of the Louisville Jockey Club, which would later become Churchill Downs. Isaac's first victory came the following year, on Sept. 15, when he rode Glentina, a 2-year-old filly, at the Kentucky Association track in Lexington. In the early part of his career he weighed just 74 pounds and rode as Isaac Burns.
By the time he rode in his first Kentucky Derby, in 1877, he had taken the surname of his maternal grandfather, Green Murphy, at the request of his mother. In that Derby Murphy finished fourth aboard Vera Cruz. Later that fall, in Louisville, he rode Vera Cruz to his first victory in a major stakes race.
In 1884 Murphy swept the three most important races at the Churchill Downs spring meeting—the Kentucky Oaks, with Modesty, and the Kentucky Derby and the Clark Stakes, with Buchanan, a horse he didn't want to ride. Murphy had signed a contract with Buchanan's owner, Capt. William Cottrill, to ride the colt in the Derby, but he tried to back out of the commitment because Buchanan was wild and prone to act up in the saddling area and on the track. Cottrill took the matter to track officials, and they ruled that in the Derby, Murphy would have to ride Buchanan—or no horse at all. Faced with the possibility of being suspended for the entire meeting, Murphy took the mount and brought Buchanan, a maiden, home a winner. He won the Derby again in 1890 with Riley, and the next year he won his third, and last, Derby with Kingman.