ATLANTA–Muhammad Ali ruled the boxing ring. Michael Jordan ruled the basketball court. And from 1879 to 1892, no one ruled the turf like black jockey Isaac Burns Murphy.
Racking up 628 horse racing career wins, nabbing three Kentucky Derby victories, and boasting an unrivaled 44 percent win record in a sport known for its revered white privilege and elitism, Murphy left competitors in his dust, as he rode his way to the top…and finally into a history book.
Pellom McDaniels III recently penned “The Prince of Jockeys: The Life of Isaac Burns Murphy,” which he shared during his book discussion at Atlanta’s Hammonds House Museum (February 9).
“[Affluent] men in the South depended upon nothing but black men in horse racing,” McDaniels told The Atlanta Voice. “Murphy was groomed in the context of a sport, of an occupation that black faces had predominated.”
In 19th century America, black men and boys were a part of horse racing in a variety of capacities, from grooming horses to riding the thoroughbreds.
Hailing from the Bluegrass state of Kentucky, Murphy was exposed early on to the horse racing world and he officially became a jockey at 14.
From there, all he did was run the track and win, which earned the honor of being the first jockey inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1955.
“I think Arthur Ashe is the probably the [best] modern example of someone who was similar to Murphy, in that he used intellect and his athletic his ability to win,” McDaniels explained. “He psychologically dominated his opponents—No one could figure out what he was doing.”
Like the tennis icon Ashe, Murphy was smart. He understood how to play the game within the game. He used his mental prowess to outwit and intimidate his challengers.
“And he understood in his own quiet way that he was a representative of black folks,” McDaniels added. “Murphy was very aware of his importance. He was very clear about who he was and where he came from.”
Murphy’s life and winnings spanned the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the adoption of Jim Crow legislation. So, throughout his lifetime, he faced and overcame many challenges until he could no longer beat the odds stacked against him.
“At some point, the jockeys in New York, the Irish immigrants and Irish Americans colluded to exclude black jockeys from races,” McDaniels said. “The crooked gambling had jockeys who were willing to pull horses and block other jockeys in, so they could not win a race.”
Murphy, along with his black contemporaries, such as Anthony Hamilton, Willie Simms, and Oliver Lewis, garnered lucrative contracts worth upwards to $15,000 per season (at that time), because they excelled on the track. They obtained the credibility and success that white jockeys envied.
Using sabotage, white jockeys and bookies were able to box-out black jockeys from placing in races by the turn of the 19th century. By the mid-20th century, blacks in horse racing became rare.