Many consider Isaac Murphy the greatest American jockey of all time. The son of a former slave, Murphy rose to prominence in a field that was dominated by African American jockeys at the time. Murphy set a standard that no other jockey has met.
Isaac Murphy won with more than a third of his mounts year after year. He won the Kentucky Derby three times, the Latonia Derby five times, and four of the first five runnings of the American Derby, once the richest 3-year-old race in America.
Not only was Murphy known for his skill on horseback but also for his honesty and loyalty. He once refused to let champion Falsetto lose the 1879 Kenner Stakes, even though gamblers enticed him with bribes.
Among others, Murphy rode Emperor of Norfolk, Kingston, Firenze, and Salvator. Aboard Salvator in the 1890 Suburban he defeated Snapper Garrison and Tenney in a historic match
Murphy's career record is astounding by any measurement. Murphy often stated that he won 628 of his 1,412 races. Official records are incomplete, but later calculations record that he had 539 wins in 1,538 rides, still an unprecedented 34% winning rate. At the height of his career, Murphy was averaging $15,000 a year, excluding bonuses, making him the highest paid jockey in the United States at that time.
In 1956, he was inducted in the National Museum of Racing's Hall of Fame.
"In the South at that time it was not unusual for African Americans to be working at the stables as riders, trainers, and stable boys. Wealthy Euro-Americans imported Thoroughbred horses, and many had bondpeople to care for them. The workers became skilled horsemen, and the tradition continued through the late 1800s. In the first Kentucky Derby in 1875, fifteen of the seventeen riders were Black. This was no anomaly; within the next 28 years, the Derby was won fifteen times by an African American jockeys."
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