Blinkers Off Tall tales from the Derby's past
Lost and Found: The Life and Death of Isaac Murphy
“He’s pretty good for a colored jockey. You might say he’s the colored Fred Archer.” — English fan comparing Isaac Murphy to England’s best jockey in 1879
“He’s got it wrong. Archer might be good enough to be called the white Isaac Murphy.” — Kentucky turf writer, same year
He was the first jockey to win three Kentucky Derbies and the finest rider of his time. Even though he was a black man in a white Old South world, when Isaac Murphy died in 1896 one of the largest crowds of mourners in the history of Lexington walked behind the horse-drawn hearse to African Cemetery No. 2.
Isaac Murphy (Library of Congress)
His lavish coffin was modeled after that of President Ulysses S. Grant. In segregated Lexington, even the local newspaper made note of his passing.
Then, incredibly, almost like yellowed old photographs locked away in a dusty attic, they simply forgot him.
Forgot? Hell, they lost his body for 65 years, and nobody even bothered to look for it for the first 62 of them.
You wonder how there in the bluegrass of America’s prime thoroughbred country that was even possible. Murphy came home first aboard 628 of his 1,412 mounts, a .445 winning percentage. No other jockey is close.
He won the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks in 1884, and it took 49 years before another jockey would win both in the same year. He was the first jockey to win back-to-back Kentucky Derbies, in 1890 and 1891. He was probably the first jockey to become an owner as well.
He built a mansion for his wife in Lexington. After he retired, he bought real estate in Chicago and commissioned and collected oil paintings of his finest mounts. As much as segregated America would permit, Murphy was as close as Kentucky had to a Renaissance man.
And then, at 34, died.
As time passed, it was both easy and convenient for what had clearly become the all-white world of owners, trainers and jockeys to forget Isaac Murphy; just as it was easy for them to ignore the legacy of his time. They forgot that 13 of the 15 rider in the first Kentucky Derby were African-Americans as were 15 winning jockeys of the first 28 Derbies.
Old folks said that the sound of the wind slamming against the wooden structure that was the old Churchill Downs was the restless ghost of Isaac Murphy wailing, “Where are you guys? I’m waiting for you.”
When they finally started to look for him it was not because of an owner or a trainer or a racing executive. Enter Amanda Buckley and Frank Bories, Jr.
Ms. Buckley was the keeper of the archives and the first librarian at Keeneland Race Course. In 1961, she had just finished chasing down another false lead that suggested Murphy had been buried in New Orleans. Mr. Bories, a press specialist at the University of Kentucky was working on a research project and she told him, “If you really want to do something, go out and find that grave for me.”
It took Bories three years, but he learned that they had placed a wooden cross over Murphy’s grave. The cross rotted and was replaced by a monument that had no name inscribed on it. Then the vines and the weeds took over, and finally African Cemetery No. 2 was abandoned.
Bories, however, wouldn’t quit. He found a guy in his nineties who had been at the funeral and knew the spot. Through these efforts, the body was exhumed.
So where are Murphy’s remains today?
Drive 60 miles north of Louisville along I-75 to exit 120, another four miles north of Lexington. Drive down Iron Works Pike. Nobody will have to tell you when you get there. You will know.
If horses and horsemen have a heaven, it will look like this:
Thirty-two miles of white plank fencing, enclosing 1,032 acres of rolling bluegrass, housing two museums, two theaters, a working farm, stables that contain 40 different breeds of horses, the retirement home of 1972 Derby winner Bold Forbes, super gelding John Henry, and now Cigar, Funny Cide and Da Hoss.
This is Kentucky Horse Park.
At its entrance is the Man o’ War Monument and the grave site of that great horse. On the left side of the entrance drive is Isaac Murphy’s grave. You can make the case that a single tract of Kentucky bluegrass holds the remains of the near-perfect jockey and the near-perfect horse.
So what made this son of a slave, who fought for the Union and died of pneumonia, so different?
Consider the 10th running of the Kentucky Derby in 1884.
They were heading into the stretch, and a colt named Admiral was leading the nine-horse pack. Then the chestnut, which had almost been left at the post when the starter turned them loose, began to move on him.
Eyewitnesses later swore that, in a single instant, the rider’s body was tucked so far into the challenger they seemed to be a single entity. It was an anatomical illusion that would repeat itself in the best of America’s thoroughbred races whenever and wherever Isaac Murphy was in position to get a horse home first.
For him, the whip was simply a stage prop. Here was a jock who rode with his hands and his heels and his heart; the soft crooning of his voice was a siren’s song to the mounts beneath him, a language only the two of them understood:
“You got the best on you, now gimme the best I know is within you.” The colt was named Buchanan and it won the Kentucky Derby. That was the first time.
They passed along the stories from generation to generation. Most of them centered on the almost-mystical way Murphy sat on a horse. You could almost swear he conveyed to each the message, “I don’t know how good you are, but when I got up here, you just became a lot better.”
Nearly a half-century after his death, Broadway legends Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer produced a musical called “St. Louis Woman” about a jockey that hurled to stardom a young singer named Pearl Bailey. In the show, they called the jockey Augie, but the narrative was so familiar that who else could it be but Isaac Murphy?
Who else came to mind when the theater thrilled to the refrain:
“I’ve seen plenty of backstretch ramblers, but I can tell you for fair,
Augie sets on a horse’s neck like much folks set on a chair
He don’t need a bridle. He don’t use his hands.
Augie talks the language horses understand
and it’s true that he do, Augie is the biggest little man.”
And he was.