Little Known Black History Fact: Isaac Murphy

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  • Thirteen of the 15 riders in the first Kentucky Derby were African-American. One of those riders was Isaac Burns Murphy. A rider from 1876-1895, Murphy carried a 44% victory rate. He was the first jockey elected to the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame and was dubbed one of the greatest race riders in American history.

    Isaac Murphy competed in eleven Kentucky Derbys, becoming the first jockey to win three of the Derbys.

    Born Isaac Burns, the rider changed his last name to Murphy to honor his grandfather who raised him after his father died as a P.O.W. in the Civil War when he was 14 years old.

    He rode “Buchanan” in 1884, “Riley” in 1890, and “Kingman” in 1891. “Kingman” was owned and trained by a Black man, (Dudley Allen) and is the only horse owned by an African-American to win the Derby. Murphy would continue to win the Latonia Derby five times, and four American Derbys, once the richest 3-year-old race in America.

    Isaac Murphy is the only jockey to have won the Kentucky Derby, the Kentucky Oaks, and the Clark Handicap all in the same year (1884). Considered one of the great jockeys in American history, Murphy was dubbed the “Colored Archer,” after Fred Archer, a prominent English jockey at the time. After struggling to keep his weight down to regulation, Murphy died at age 36 from pneumonia.

    The remains of Isaac Murphy lied in an unmarked grave and were forgotten until Frank B. Borries, Jr., a University of Kentucky press specialist, found Murphy’s grave after a three-year search.

    In 1967, Isaac Murphy was re-interred at the old Man o’ War burial site. After the construction of the Kentucky Horse Park, Murphy’s remains were moved again and buried next to Man o’ War at the Kentucky Horse Park’s entrance.

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