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Born Into Slavery, Isaac Murphy Won the Kentucky Derby Three Times and Became the Richest American Athlete

Jackie Robinson. Jesse Owens. Isaac Burns Murphy?

No one would blame you for not knowing the third man on this list of accomplished African American athletes. But Murphy was one of the most significant jockeys in the history of horse racing. He was the first person to win the Kentucky Derby three times, was the highest-paid jockey in the United States, and had the best winning average in horse-racing history, which makes his obscurity all the more baffling.

Born into slavery in Clark County, Kentucky, in 1861, Murphy moved to Lexington with his mother after the end of the Civil War. In 1874, his mother, perhaps due to ill health or the loss of her savings in a bank crash, apprenticed the teenager to James T. Williams, a horse breeder. He learned to care for and exercise the horses. Eli Jordan, a friend of his mother’s, took a special interest in the boy and taught him the intricacies of pace and horse racing. Since he was small, he was an ideal jockey.

It was a world in which African American men excelled. “A majority of successful African American jockeys and trainers of the middle to late 19th century had been raised around horses since birth and rode as the property of their masters,” Pellom McDaniels III, curator of African American collections at Emory University and the author of The Prince of Jockeys: The Life of Isaac Burns Murphy, told Timeline. “During Reconstruction and to end of the 19th century, these same jockeys and trainers would have been the talent used to develop the thoroughbred horses found in the South.” Murphy was training to enter one of the few arenas open to young black men: one in which they trained and brought up horses owned by white men, then displayed them with acts of daring on the track.

When Murphy was just 14 years old, he rode his first race — and won one a few months later. His time in the stables had imbued him with a special understanding of horses’ capabilities and weaknesses, and he knew how to keep calm on the track. He soon became known for his gentle handling of the horses, and quickly developed a reputation for dramatic finishes.

After moving to Louisville, Murphy began competing in large-prize races. But he also began struggling with his weight. Like other jockeys of the time, he participated in dangerous rituals to lose weight, starving himself and following unusual diets to make sure he was light enough to race.

Murphy won scores of races, from the Travers Stakes at Saratoga to the American Derby in Chicago. But his Kentucky Derby victories were his most memorable wins. Murphy won three times — in 1884, 1890, and 1891. In 1890, his confidence was tested in a race against Ed “Snapper” Garrison. Garrison was the most famous white jockey in a sport that was changing rapidly as more white jockeys, noticing the prize purses and accolades being given to black jockeys, joined in. Murphy easily beat Garrison, but his win was downplayed by some viewers and journalists.

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Murphy used his racing prowess to build a fortune that countered stereotypes of black wealth. By 1887 he was so wealthy that the New York Times reported that he had bought “a fine suburban residence” in Kentucky. He had become one of the United States’ most famous and best-paid athletes.

Jockey, circa 1920s. For a time, jockeying was a world in which African American men excelled. (Leslie Jones Collection/Boston Public Library)

But hard times were on the way for Murphy and other black jockeys. “When the amount of money a jockey could make increased, white men and boys gravitated towards the sport and began colluding to exclude African American jockeys from the major contracts available,” explained McDaniels. The sport Murphy had helped build was disappearing from beneath him, and increasingly he was referred to as a “colored jockey” rather than a jockey.

Murphy also began struggling on the track. In 1890, he was suspended for drinking in the saddle, though it’s not clear whether he was in fact drunk. McDaniels theorized that he was actually poisoned. Regardless, his reputation never recovered from the suspension and he continued to struggle with his weight. In 1896, after a bout with an illness similar to the flu, Murphy died. He was 35 years old.

Despite winning nearly half the races he entered — a record in the sport — Murphy was soon relegated to relative obscurity. For McDaniels, it makes sense within the bigger context of American sports. “African American men not only sought to challenge the outright claim to male power white men had long coveted as their birthright, but increasingly used public competitions to prove their fitness for equal footing in the United States,” he explained. “Essentially, like boxing, baseball, and other occupations that allowed African American men to compete with white men, white Americans rejected any and all representations of equality in support of a white-dominant society.”

There is a part of the world that still does celebrate Murphy’s accomplishments: that of horse racing itself. “There is no chance that his record of winning will ever be surpassed,” said Eddie Arcaro, a celebrated jockey. Murphy was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1955 — the first jockey ever to be given the honor.

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Written by How Africa

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