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Celebrating Kentucky: Isaac Burns Murphy

By Jenn Shockley |

The trailblazing jockey who rose to fame as the first three-time Derby winner.

Although much of Isaac Burns Murphy's early life is shrouded in mystery, we do know that he was born in Frankfort, Kentucky, in 1861. We also know that, despite many obstacles, he became one of the most successful athletes of his era.

Murphy moved to Lexington with his family in 1864. After his mother became ill and concerned for her child's future, she introduced Isaac to a black horse trainer named Eli Jordon. Issac took to horses like a fish takes to water. He became a professional jockey by the age of 14, and changed his name from Burns to Burns Murphy, his grandfather.

 

Isaac won his first horse race at the Lexington Crab Orchard in September, 1875. He won 11 more races by the end of 1876, and 19 additional races in 1877. He married Lucy Carr in 1883, and kept winning races, including the American Derby in Chicago in 1884, 1885, 1886, and 1888. Today the race is known as The Isaac Murphy Stakes. He won his first Kentucky Derby in 1884, winning again in both 1890 and 1891. Isaac was the first three-time winner and the first to win three successive Derbies.

 

Murphy is estimated to have won 539 of 1,538 races, and averaged $15,000 a year during the peak of his career. He was the highest paid jockey in the United States. This was a real feat, considering the Jim Crow segregation of the times. He was accused of drinking during the race at one point, but it was later thought he was poisoned.

 

Murphy battled with his health later in life, gaining weight and becoming the subject of rumors. Unfortunately, this renowned athlete passed away at the age of 34 in 1896 on his Lexington farm. The National Museum of Racing's Hall of Fame inducted him with honor in 1956, memorializing his feats for all to remember.

 

 

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