Isaac Burns Murphy was born Isaac Burns on April 16, 1861 on a farm in Frankfort, Kentucky. After his father’s death in a prison camp during the Civil War, his mother moved back home to Lexington to the home of her parents.
Isaac would go to work with his mother who was working at a racing stable. Eli Jordan, an African-American trainer, took notice of the young Burns and began to mold him into a jockey. Isaac adopted the name “Murphy” to honor his grandfather, Green Murphy, and became known as Isaac Burns Murphy.
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At the age of 14 Murphy rode and won his first race. He was one of the first jockeys to pace his mount throughout the race and make a late surge in the homestretch. He rode his first Kentucky Derby the following year and finished a respectable fourth. Murphy used his words and a spur to urge his mounts rather than hit them with a whip.
By 1879 Isaac had become a star in the sport of racing, winning the biggest races the country had to offer. He won the Kentucky Derby three times in 1884, 1890 and 1891. Over the course of his career Murphy earned an average salary of $20,000 per year and lived in a mansion in Lexington.
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Isaac Murphy was the first jockey inducted into the Horseracing Hall of Fame.
During the mid-1890’s Murphy’s career began to wane due to ongoing battles with his weight, alcoholism and racial discrimination. The days of African-American riders dominating the American turf were coming to an end as more and more white riders emerged.
Isaac Murphy died on February 12, 1896 of pneumonia just a few months after the end of his riding career. He was buried in an unmarked grave in African Cemetery No. 2 in Lexington, Kentucky and forgotten. During the 1960’s, University of Kentucky Press Specialist Frank B. Borries, Jr. spent three years trying to locate Murphy’s grave. In 1967 the once famous rider was reinterred at the old burial site of the legendary horse Man O’ War. When the Kentucky Horse Park was built, Murphy was moved again and laid to rest a final time beside Man O’ War at the entrance to the park.
During his career, Murphy’s win percentage was phenomenal. One record states that his win percentage was 44%, another claims it to be just over 34%. That percentage has never been matched by any rider since. In 1995 The American Turf Writers’ Association created the Isaac B. Murphy Memorial Award. Every year since then, the jockey who has the highest win percentage of the year is honored with this award.
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