Isaac Burns Murphy is arguably the greatest jockey of all time.
Isaac Burns Murphy is one of the greatest jockeys ever, and it can be argued that he is in fact the greatest.
By Murphy’s calculation, he won 628 of his 1,212 starts in a career that lasted from 1875 to 1895. The 44 percent winning percentage is the best of all time, and is a record that is nearly impossible to beat. In later years his count number was recalculated, changing his numbers to 530 wins in 1,538 rides, putting his win rate at 34 percent, which is still outstanding.
Murphy was born on a farm near Frankford, Kentucky, in 1861. His father was a bricklaying free black man and his mother worked as a laundrywoman. While fighting in the Civil War for the Union Army, his father died in a Confederate prisoner of war camp. Shortly after, Murphy’s mother moved their family to Lexington, Kentucky, to live with her parents.
In Lexington, Murphy’s mother worked at the Richard and Owings Racing Stable, where he would go to work with her. A black trainer named Eli Jordon noticed Murphy’s interest in race horses, and began to train him for his first race, when Murphy was only 14 years old.
Murphy won his first race in 1875 at the Lexington Crab Orchard. A year later he had won 11 races at Lexington’s Kentucky Association track. The following year he placed fourth in his first Kentucky Derby race. By 1879 he was a star in the sport with a win at the Travers Stakes in Saratoga Springs.
In 1884, Murphy won the first of his three Kentucky Derby victories. Later that year he won the Chicago American Derby, which was the most prestigious horse race in the nation at the time. Murphy won the American Derby four times, one shy of the record for that race. He was also the first jockey to ride three Kentucky Derby winners. In the 1891 Kentucky Derby he rode “Kingman,” who was owned and trained by Dudley Allen, the only black racehorse owner to train a Kentucky Derby winner.
Also in 1884, Murphy won the Kentucky Derby, the Kentucky Oaks, and the Clark Handicap. No other rider has won all three of those races in the same year.
In 1890, Murphy cemented himself as the greatest jockey of that time when he defeated Ed “Snapper” Garrison, who was a white rider. There was a heated debate over which rider was the best in the sport, with most black people picking Murphy, and most white people picking Garrison.
Over the course of his racing career Murphy received an average salary of close to $20,000 per year. At the time he was the highest paid athlete in the United States, and he lived in a mansion in Lexington.
Murphy died of pneumonia in 1896 at the age of 36, a few months after he retired from the sport. He was buried in an unmarked grave in African Cemetery No. 2 in Lexington and was pretty much forgotten until Frank B. Borries, Jr., a University of Kentucky press specialist, found Murphy’s grave after a three-year search.
Murphy’s remains were moved next to the Man o’War burial site at the Kentucky Horse Park.
The National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame was created in 1955, and Murphy was the first jockey inducted. Since then the National Turf Writers Association has given the Isaac Murphy Award to the jockey with the highest winning percentage for the year in North American racing. Also, the Isaac Murphy Handicap is held annually at Arlington Park in a suburb of Chicago, Illinois.