Tag Archives: Isaac Murphy

African Americans and the Kentucky Derby: A Long and Storied History

African American Jockeys Kentucky Derby

Jimmy Winkfield rides Alan-a-Dale in the Kentucky Derby in 1902.

“Today will be historic in Kentucky annals as the first ‘Derby Day’ of what promises to be a long series of annual turf festivities of which we confidently expect our grandchildren, a hundred years hence, to celebrate in glorious rejoicings.”—Louisville Courier-Journal, May 17, 1875

As we look forward to the 142nd running of the Kentucky Derby, we are reminded that it is impossible to talk about the “greatest two minutes in sports” without also talking about African American history. The two are inextricably tied. Of the fifteen riders at the first Kentucky Derby in 1875, thirteen were black, including the winning jockey, Oliver Lewis. Lewis rode Aristides to victory with the help of trainer Ansel Williamson, a former slave.

In the early days of American horse racing, many of the jockeys were slaves, who, after emancipation, continued working as trainers and riders for their former owners. Black jockeys won half of the first sixteen Derbies, and fifteen of the first twenty-eight, and most of the trainers were African American as well.

Baden Baden horse Edward D. Brown

Baden Baden was trained by Edward D. Brown, and ridden to victory by Billy Walker in the 1877 Kentucky Derby.

There was plenty of fame and fortune to be found for successful trainers and riders. At the third Kentucky Derby in 1877, the rider-trainer duo of Billy Walker and Ed “Brown Dick” Brown, guided Baden-Baden to a win. Ed Brown was one of the most successful trainers in the country and famous for his expensive suits and large bankrolls. Brown’s career in racing spanned more than 30 years as a jockey (who won the Belmont Stakes in 1870), a trainer, and as an owner. His horse, Monrovia, won the Kentucky Oaks in 1893. His filly, Etta, won in 1900. He was inducted into the National Racing Hall of Fame in 1984.

Some of the best-known names of the era were the jockeys. Alonzo “Lonnie” Clayton still holds the record as the youngest-ever Kentucky Derby winner. At the age of 15, he won the 1892 Derby astride Azra. Isaac Burns Murphy was very well respected by his fellow jockeys, trainers, owners, breeders, and fans across the country. He was the first jockey to win back-to-back Kentucky Derbies. James “Jimmy” Winkfield almost eclipsed Murphy’s record in 1903, when he placed second in what would have been his third Kentucky Derby win in a row.

Unfortunately, Jimmy Winkfield was also the last African American to win the Kentucky Derby. Since 1911, when Jess Conley finished third, only three other black jockeys have ridden horses in the Derby. As James C. Nicholson writes in The Kentucky Derby:

“In fact, black riders were forced out of the sport by jealous white jockeys and bigoted owners and trainers in an increasingly racially biased American society whose court system had given official sanction to various Jim Crow laws by the end of the nineteenth century. As the Derby became increasingly popular on a national scale in the twentieth century, blacks still played indispensable roles in the lives of racehorses and the sport of horse racing. But grooms, hot-walkers, and stable hands operated far from the spotlight that would shine ever brighter on top athletes, including jockeys.”

This Saturday, as the riders take their mounts and as we celebrate the horse-trainer-jockey team who take their victory lap around the winners circle, take a moment to remember history and the men who should never be forgotten.

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This post originally appeared on our blog on April 26, 2015.

“Groundbreaking for Isaac Murphy Memorial Art Garden Celebrates Unsung Hero of Kentucky Racing”

Isaac Burns MurphyFinally, after many months and years of fundraising, the Isaac Burns Murphy Memorial Art Garden has broken ground on the East End of Lexington, KY. The Memorial Garden, long-planned as the downtown trailhead of the Legacy Trail which will extend some 12 miles to the Kentucky Horse Park, celebrates the achievements of jockey Isaac Burns Murphy as well as other African American contributions to the Thoroughbred industry. Located at the intersection of Third Street and Midland Avenue, where Murphy’s house once stood during the late 1800s, it is also only a few blocks away from where the Kentucky Association Race Track operated prior to the construction of Keeneland.

Read more about the Isaac Burns Murphy Memorial Art Garden, and see photos from the groundbreaking

Isaac Burns Murphy (1861–1896) was one of the most dynamic jockeys of his era. Still considered one of the finest riders of all time, Murphy was the first jockey to win the Kentucky Derby three times, and his 44 percent win record remains unmatched. Despite his success, Murphy was pushed out of Thoroughbred racing when African American jockeys were forced off the track, and he died in obscurity.

In his book, The Prince of Jockeys: The Life of Isaac Burns MurphyPellom McDaniels honors a man who epitomized the rise of the black middle class. Murphy helped prove that African Americans were not only worthy of citizenship, but capable of representing the best of humanity.

The Prince of Jockeys Isaac Burns MurphyContinue for an excerpt from The Prince of Jockeys

 

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