Kentucky Derby — Who Was Isaac Burns Murphy?

I’m not really a fan of horse racing and I’ve never been to the Kentucky Derby. Perhaps I should someday, since my mother was from Kentucky (she always told me Kentucky was the state of fast horses and beautiful women. Or was that the other way around?)

It might be because my grandfather got me a pony named Prince for my birthday and I had never asked for a pony. But we lived on a spacious farm and, as a survivor of the Great Depression, I suspect my grandfather was giving me what he had always wanted. Except he made a poor choice; the pony he brought me was being trained to race and was more than I could handle. I rode it once and lasted maybe ten seconds. The saddle did provide a nice room decoration, but Prince lived out his years behind an electric fence and riding was never mentioned again.

Regardless, in the hoopla leading up to this year’s Derby was an article about the race’s first three-time winner — jockey Isaac Burns Murphy, who was one of the greatest jockeys of all time with a 44% victory rate (

You’ve never heard of Isaac Burns Murphy? It could be because he was a black man who was born into slavery.

Not that any of his life was carefully planned. According to Emory University professor Pellom McDaniels III, who wrote in his biography of Burns, The Prince of Jockeys, post-Civil War Kentucky left the development of prized sheep, cattle, and of course horses to the formerly enslaved — it was work beneath the dignity of the White elite. “As horse racing became exceedingly important to the landed gentry, grooms, trainers and jockeys rose in prestige on Kentucky farms,” McDaniels writes. That created the opportunity for black men like Pike Barnes, Soup Perkins, Willie Simms, and Issac Burns Murphy to make their marks in the sport. Murphy began racing at 14, with his first win coming in September of 1875 (the year of the first Kentucky Derby, where 13 of the 15 jockeys, including winner Oliver Lewis, were black). Murphy rode in his first Derby two years later, finishing fourth.

Murphy usually won his races with an unconventional approach. Rather than a bullying stance and liberal use of the whip, Murphy encouraged his mount with calming words. He was content to let others gallop ahead, conserving his horse’s stamina, then would charge forward to grab the lead at the finish.

It was an impressive life. And thanks to historians like Pellom McDaniels III, Murphy’s accomplishments are not being forgotten.

Taken from “The First Three-Time Derby Winner Was a Former Slave” by Nick Fouriezos ( The photo came from that site.

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