Chronicles of the Black Jockeys Volume V: Era of the Celebrity Athlete: Isaac "Ike the Machine" Murphy

 “I am proud of my calling as I am proud of my record, and I believe my life will be recorded as a success, though the reputation I enjoyed was earned in the stable and saddle.  It is a great honor to be classed as one of America’s great jockeys”... Isaac "Ike" Murphy


The history of American horseracing has masked one terrible dimension and that is of the jockeys’ struggle with their weight in order to mount.  In fact, at the turn of the century, many of the great jockeys left the sport in America for England, France, Austria, Russia, Germany, and elsewhere in Europe, as European weight limits were less restrictive than in America.  “Flipping” as it was called, was the brutal crash dieting practiced by many jockeys in order to loose weight from one season to another, to remain compliant.  It was the equivalent of today’s bulimia or practices of self-induced vomiting or starving oneself to avoid gaining weight.  Both white and black jockeys “flipped” but the great black jockey Isaac Murphy, who started to flip as a teenager, would go on to struggle with this for his entire short life.  He would systematically go from 130 or 140 pounds to as little as 100 pounds to ride, going from loosing his winter weight in a space of weeks for example, to meet the Kentucky Derby’s requirements by May.

Isaac Murphy

Isaac Murphy was born a free man somewhere around 1861 as Isaac Burns.  As a youth, he Ike Murphy Istarted working as an exercise boy, after which he went to work with black trainer Eli Jordan.  Isaac’s father was a soldier in the Union Army at Camp Nelson and it is believed that father taught son an incredible discipline and a desire for perfection in whatever he did.  According to trainer Jordan, “Isaac was always in his place and I could put my hand on him anytime day or night.  He was always one of the first up in the morning, ready to do anything he was told to do or to help others.  He was ever in a good humor and liked to play, but he never neglected his work, but worked hard summer and winter.  He never got the big head.”

Murphy rode in his first race in Louisville, five days after the inaugural 1875 Kentucky Derby.  In that race, he finished last.  The death of his father forced his mother to move her family to live with her father.  Frequent mounts that year saw Isaac win several races, now as Isaac “Murphy.”  In honor of his grandfather, he took his last name.  Within two years of his start as a rider, he had gained enough attention to make it out of the south and into the North, at Saratoga in 1877.  Isaac found himself up against two national giants in that race, the great white jockey George Barbee and his champion thoroughbred 'Tom Ochiltree.'  After the race, the newspapers described “the black kid who surprised the crowd and ‘came home like a hurricane.’”  Murphy had ridden himself into national recognition by taking down Barbee and Ochiltree.  He would win the Kentucky St. Ledger at Louisville, the Breckinridge Stakes at Pimlico, and other well-known races at Jerome Park in New York.

Murphy rode for J.W. Reynolds at his Fleetwood Farm in Kentucky.  Edward Hotaling states that Reynolds’ wife took an interest in the boy and became a role model in molding his development in areas of ‘refined character’ and manners.  Whatever the source, images of Isaac Murphy along with available documentation would reveal a man of impeccable taste and style during his entire life.  It was also at Fleetwood where Murphy would mount the colt Falsetto, which would be the start of an historic career. 

Between the spring of 1879 and May 20th for the Kentucky Derby, Murphy had to loose over 30 pounds, from 130 to less than 100 pounds in order to ride in the Derby.  Murphy’s finished second in the race but made up for the loss a month later by taking four races in one day on the Fourth of July in Detroit.  Of his performance, he said it was “my most successful day’s ride.”  While the Kentucky Derby was emerging, in the late 1800s it was far from being the gold standard of racing.  This was the preserve of racing in the North East, in particular, in New York where the black jockeys from the South and West had to prove themselves against much racial hostilities. 

Two weeks later, Murphy rode Falsetto in the 1879 Travers Stakes at Saratoga where he defeated white jockey Edward Feakes, who rode Belmont Stakes champion Spendthrift.  Murphy had finally made it into the big leagues and had gotten the attention of the turf specialist, The Spirit of the Times.  As Edward Hotaling noted, these were times when athletes, black or white, were rarely ever quoted in national newspapers, yet the 18-year-old Murphy was being quoted at length for all of America to take note, and he handled it well. 

The Tactician

The writer stated, “I spoke with Murphy who rode him (Falsetto).  He is a bright youth, and although his winter weight was over 130 lbs., he can, under the reducing process, ride at 105 lbs.  I inquired of him what were his instructions in the race.  ‘I had no instructions, except that I was to win the race.  I ask him, ‘with such instructions, do you no think you laid away rather far for the first mile?’”  The reporter thought Isaac had held the horse back for two long.  Isaac’s response, however, was the first shot in revealing to America the intelligence and tactical skills which would make Murphy the greatest black jockey since the days of Austin Curtis, Monkey Simon, and Abe Hawkins. 

Well I don’t know sir.  I wanted a waiting race.  I thought Spendthrift was the horse to beat.  I did not know about Harold (third place finisher) but I believed that my horse could win from either of them if I could get the race put upon a brush down the homestretch.”   Murphy had strategically laid back not only to conserve his horse’s strength in the first mile, but also to trick his top challenger (riding the horse Spendthrift).  This was seemingly the first documented, “Rope a Dope” strategy in American sports;  “I kept away from them to keep them from becoming alarmed.  I was always in striking distance and you know when Spendthrift went away on the backstretch, I was ready for the move.”  

The reporter countered, “Yes that is true but why did you go up to Harold and Jerricho at half mile and then fall away again?”  Murphy responded, “I did not care for Jerricho, but while I thought Spendthrift was the dangerous horse, I wanted to go up to Harold to see how he felt, so I tapped Falsetto with the spur one time, went up to them, felt of Harold, found him all abroad, sprawling over the course, and saw he was out of the race, and I fell back to keep Feakes (main rival on horse Spendthrift) from thinking I was at all dangerous.

So Murphy had run a tactical and strategic race in which he kept his eye on his horse and on his main rival, while taking the time to checked out his third place competition after which he then fall back, all in a strategic effort to trick his main rival in to believing that he was toasted.  Trainer Jack Joyner was said to have called Murphy, “the best judge of pace I ever saw.”  Famed black jockey Billy Walker is documented as affirming the sentiment;  “I tried him out many times, and he rarely missed guessing how fast he was going.  That is something not one in ten of the present-day jockeys can do…”  That day, the crowd, not knowing Murphy’s strategies, had incorrectly screamed out, “Falsetto is beaten.  Spendthrift wins!”  Murphy and Falsetto had in fact won the race, beating Harold and Spendthrift.

Four years after he had commenced horseracing, The Spirit of the Times reporter, Albion, wrote of Isaac Murphy following this race;  “Murphy is one of the best jockeys in America.  He is very observant during the progress of a race, keeps a sharp lookout for danger, is quick to perceive the weak points of an adversary, and prompt to take advantage of them.  He had a steady hand, a quick eye, a cool head, and a bold heart.”

Murphy’s next race would be the Kenner Stakes at Saratoga, where his chief rival would once again be Spendthrift (ridden by a different jockey).  At a time when horseracing was rife with corruption, it was reported that he was offered large sums of money to ‘pull’ back Falsetto and allowed Spendthrift to win.  Murphy denied this and proved it by winning the race.  Hotaling quotes Murphy as telling another up and coming black jockey, “Stoval, you just ride to win.. a jockey that will sell out to one man will sell out to another.  Just be honest, and you’ll have no trouble and plenty of money.” 

Kentucky Derby Victory

Between 1879 and 1884 Isaac had won several smaller races and also had married his sweetheart Lucy in 1882.  In 1884, he rode Buchanan to his first Kentucky Derby victory.  Buchanan was trained by black trainer Bill Bird, who had trained horses for the Dutchman Ten Broeck, in England back in the late 1850s when slaves could not even cross state lines.  Murphy and Bird’s feat would be repeated in Louisville the next year in the 1885 Kentucky Derby where black jockey Erskine Henderson would claim victory on the 'Joe Cotton,' a horse trained by black trainer Abe Perry.

Inauguration of Washington Park in Chicago and the American Derby had further expanded the sport of horseracing in 1884, with Derbies now catching on, after the New Jersey and Kentucky Derbies.  According to Edward Hotaling, in those days, Americans were saying, “Take me out the racetrack,” again, another forerunner to today’s “Take me out the ball game,” a sporting idiom, with roots in horseracing.  Derbies were popping up all over the country, as they were great promotional tools for the states and also great sources of revenues.  The American Derby at Washington Park would become the biggest Derby in the country for a few decades.  Murphy would grab the first American Derby in Chicago, whose purse was more than two and a half times the purse of the Kentucky Derby.  After this race, Isaac Murphy would become known by the more familiar moniker, “Ike,” as he was dubbed in the press.

group jockeysAs a result of “flipping,” different pictures taken of Isaac Murphy often seem like a different person.  For his 110 pound 1884 Kentucky Derby, The Louisville Courier-Journal described him in 1884 as looking almost “like a Sphinx, carved out of ivory.  An elegant specimen of manhood…  strong, muscular, and as graceful as Apollo.”  That an African American athlete was being heralded comparatively to the “Far-darter” and son of ‘the gatherer of clouds’ Zeus, was only one indication of the respect commanded by Murphy at that time.  Hotaling quotes turf official Walter Vosburgh as saying, “He sits in his horse like a centaur.”

But Murphy was a champion through great discipline and practices that would be detrimental to his health.  He would become inflated and would loose the weight just as fast.  After an 1885 Saratoga meeting, a reporter wrote, “Ike Murphy is a sick man.  His stomach is all out of order..”

Enters Elias “Lucky” Baldwin

In the previous volume on William “Billy” Walker, we discussed how Billy Walker, riding the ‘Ten Broeck’, had demolished the ‘Mollie McCarthy’ in the famous 1878 Fourth of July east coast-west coast matchup in Louisville.  The Mollie McCarthy’s owner was none other than the flamboyant California millionaire, Elias “Lucky” Baldwin.  After his defeat at the hands of Billy Walker, Lucky would later set his sights on the greatest black jockey of the era, Ike Murphy, with whom he would win numerous races and made lots of money.

Lucky Baldwin, it was said, loved two things – horses and women.  Hotaling quotes historian George Waller as saying, “When the spirit moved him, he selected only blondes, or only brunettes as his passengers, and whirled them off to the race track to watch his horses run and see him win or loose anywhere from $5,000 to $50,000 on a single horse.”  Much of this money was now being wagered on Isaac Murphy.  "Lucky" would shoot to fame in the waning years of Murphy's life when he answered Miss Emma Ashley's 1895 breach of promise complaint by telling her in effect that no woman with a reputation to loose, would have anything to do with him.  The New York Times reported it as, "one of the most extraordinary on record, but which showed a remarkably clear appreciation of the moral light in which he (Lucky) should be viewed."  In that same open court room, Ms. Ashley pulled a gun and fired straight at Lucky's head, barely missing him.  This would mark the second time "Lucky" was shot at by a jilted lover and the second time he was pursued in court for 'breach of promise' by a former mistress.  The first time he was actually wounded in that shooting incident.  Elias "Lucky" Baldwin it seemed was indeed a lucky man, but in 1884, he had his sights set on making money with the 'machine,' Isaac Murphy. 

So popular was Murphy at that time in horseracing that stable owner and contractor of his services Ed Corrigan even named a horse after him, a feat then reserved for the great pioneers or trainers such as Ten Broeck.  Ike Murphy, riding Volante, won the second American Derby for Lucky Baldwin.  He also rode ‘Freeland’ for Ed Corrigan and won two out of three races against ‘Miss Woodford,’ (owned by Phil Dwyer) at Monmouth Park, New Jersey, that summer as well.  Today’s practice of rematches in boxing is also a legacy of horseracing.  For the great races, there would often always be rematches. 

Ode to Ike

Starting in 1884, white jockey Jimmy McLaughlin would have a run at being the nation’s top rider (a measure of both mounts and total wins across the spectrum) that would last for four years until 1887.  He would win the Belmont Stakes six times in seven years and the Travers four times.  According to Edward Hotaling, this accomplishment would not be duplicated until Eddie Arcaro arrived some fifty years later.  But the 1885 rematch of Freeland vs. Miss Woodford would not be to McLaughlin’s credit.  Ike Murphy’s would be lionized in his defeat of McLaughlin, with an Ode to Ike, called “Ike Murphy’s Ride”:

You know the rest in the books have you have read; How McLaughlin kept the brown mare ahead

Till Freeland came with a sudden dart; At the finish, and Isaac proved too smart

For the Dwyers’ jock; how at last; He nailed him just as the post was passed

Oh I tell you it was a close-run race; And it gave to Murphy the pride of place

The Dwyers referred to were the brothers Dwyer, a pair of Brooklyn butchers who had gotten in the horse racing business.  Brother Phil Dwyer was the owner of Miss Woodford.

First Celebrity Athlete - The 'Colored Archer'

In 1886, Murphy won his third straight American Derby, then a race with of greater stature and riches than Louisville.  He also won several smaller races as well. By 1887, he was America’s top paid athlete estimated to have earned upwards of twenty thousand annually.   Murphy was racking up the fame for himself and a fortune for Lucky Baldwin, and to a lesser extent for himself.  He bought several acres of land in Kentucky and a horse, with the intention of starting his own stable, but he soon sold the horse.  He became known for living well and for living in style.  He is said to have adorned his wife with diamonds while he was simply the most exquisite ‘fashionista,’ who according to Hotaling, was known to ‘dress to kill’ and known as the person who just had to show up in order to outclass everyone present.  Murphy even employed a white valet to care for his great looks.  Sports writers referred to Ike Murphy as the “colored Archer,” after Fred Archer who was then his contemporary and the king of British horseracing.  Murphy’s friends would respond to such comparisons by saying that it was Fred Archer who should be called “the white Murphy.”

By 1888, both writers and sports fans had come to believe that it was now Ike Murphy and not Jimmy McLaughlin who was the country’s top rider.  One writer ‘affectionately’ wrote that it was Murphy who, “in spite of his name, is neither Irish nor Hebrew, but a darky.”  But Ike Murphy’s “flipping”, common among the other top riders such as McLaughlin and Snapper Garrison, was compounded by his appetite for good living and champagne.  He was said to have occasionally drunken a sip of champagne as a ‘stimulant’ before a race.   This resulted in accusations of once loosing a race in 1887 because he was drunk. 

With his last American Derby won in 1886, he had since yielded it to another black jockeyTony Hamilton Tony “the Black Demon” Hamilton, a friend of Ike, who would see his own greatness as well.  In 1888, Ike was riding against his friend Hamilton, two other black jockeys – Kid Stoval and Isaac Lewis (1887 Kentucky Derby winner) and three white jockeys – Fred “the Flying Dutchman” Taral, and two others, Armstrong and McCarthy.  Ike demolished the competition to win his fourth American Derby.  In typical modest fashion, Ike Murphy gave an interview after the race, giving his horse, Emperor of Norfolk, much of the credit: “I consider Emperor of Norfolk the greatest horse I ever rode.  He was a wonder.. Outside of his qualifications as a racehorse, he was a great animal to ride.  He ran as well in the ruck as in front, and when called on, never failed to respond.”

Later that year, the richest race in American horseracing, the Futurity at Coney Island, emerged.  While the Kentucky Derby purse hovered around $5,000, the Futurity purse was $40,900.  Where much of the big money in horseracing was previously generated from side betting, the Futurity was the first official entry of serious money in the official purse.  The stakes had been raised.  The top white riders Taral and McLaughlin from New York were in the race.  Tony Hamilton and Isaac Lewis were in the race but so were other star black jockeys on the rise - Shelby “Pike” Barnes, Monk Overton, and GeorgeSpider” Anderson.  Isaac Murphy would be dealt defeat at the hands of Shelby “Pike” Barnes on his horse 'Proctor Knott,' with Tony Hamilton riding Salvator to second place.

The late 1800s were good years for Shelby Pike Barnes.  He had the most victories (206, which was more than twice that of his white runner up for second place, George Covington) in 1888 to become the national riding champion.  He was also the jockey with the most wins since Goodwin Official Turf Guide began keeping records in 1885.  George Spider Anderson was also a jockey who would leave his mark on racing.  He was the first black jockey to win the Preaknesss and would win the Alabama Stakes at Saratoga in 1891.  Known for his “integrity, his cleverness, and his general success,” according to American Turf, Spider would soon leave racing after loosing the weight battle.

Racism in Northern Racing

At this time, this group of powerful black jockeys wreaked the ire and fear in the New York white racing establishment.  They were from the South and from Kentucky and were never really accepted in the North, but as relics of old southern racing.  Horseracing in the North was a matter of racial pride for both establishment and broadsheet editors, who jumped at any occasion to pile-on, on the black jockeys.  The notion of “the great white hope” that was to be popularized later in boxing, did in fact emerged from horseracing in New York. 

Harper Weekly, in its cheerleading for the white jockeys, wrote in 1888, “The professional jockeys some years ago were Southern Negroes, and with the exception of a few cross-country riders of Irish parentage, monopolized nearly all of the mounts.  Today, it is different.  With McLAUGHLIN, GARRISON, LUKE, and McCARTHY (Andrew) – a quartet equal to any in the world – there is but little doubt that if a horse has got it in him to win, he will have to do it when either one of them is on his back.” 

spider andersonWhen black jockeys had won all six races in Brooklyn, The Herald’s headline on September 20th 1889, screamed, “Colored Jockeys Show the Way.”  Pike Barnes had won two.  Tony Hamilton won two, and Ike Murphy and George "Spider" Anderson each took one victory.  The article was of course filled with racial insults, and it showed the vexation of the northern press at the victorious black jockeys:  “If a composite photograph had been made of the jockeys who rode the six winners at Gravesend yesterday afternoon, it would have been as black as Erebus.  There wouldn’t have been a single light in it, unless the camera had happened to catch Hamilton with his mouth wide open, displaying the pearly white teeth which form the only relieving feature on his coal black face.  The sons of Ham outrode the children of Japhet with a vengeance, for not a single white boy was successful in guiding a winner past the judges.  It was field day for the dusky riders, and they forced their Caucasian competitors to take positions in the background.”  By today’s standards, it was really a field day for open racism in New York.

Second Kentucky Derby

1890 saw Isaac Murphy atop racing, becoming the first rider to take a second Kentucky Derby victory.  June 25th 1890 would see a matchup that was billed as a legendary race, the likes of Longfellow vs. Harry Basset or Wager vs. Grey Eagle.  This would be another historic black-white matchup of the country’s top black and white jockeys.  Murphy was riding the horse Salvator versus Snapper Garrison on ‘Tenny.’  Poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox recalled the finish in a poem:

One more mighty plunge, and with knee, limb and hand; I lift my horse first by a nose past the stand

We are under the string now – the great race is done; And Salvator, Salvator, Salvator, won

At first there was doubt about who won the race but then the Coney Island Jockey Club Ike Murphy photofinishphotographer, John Hemment, caught the finish with his lens.  Ike Murphy had indeed eked out a victory, in what was yet another horseracing invention to the vernacular – the “photo finish.”   The rematch in August would yield the same results, with the exception that Murphy would win this time by a few lengths.  The Spirit of the Times concluded, “About the immense superiority Isaac Murphy shows over the majority of the jockeys at the present day, especially in match races, there can be no room for doubt.  It was no wonder Isaac Murphy’s quiet countenance beamed as he trotted back to the padlock.  He had won the Junior Champion Stakes.. but above all, he had ridden the best horse of the decade, if not the century, on the American turf, in the race which was the supreme climax of a grand career.”

But then a combination of his lifestyle and his health issues, most likely from ‘flipping’, would commence taking a toll.  A few weeks after this magnificent win and rematch, trainer Matt Byrnes had a clambake at his home in New Jersey on August 24th.  The group assembled at Matt’s house, inclusive of Murphy, referred to themselves as the “Salvator Club”.  According to the Spirit of the Times, “The champagne ran in streams and river but it was all a fest of reason and flow of soul.  Present were half the judicial and political ‘somebodies’ of New York,” to which Edward Hotaling notes, “there was no question who the ‘somebody’ was among the six men (five white and one black) having their picture taken for the event.”  ‘Champagne Ike’ “was the most elegant figure in his Derby double breasted chestnut coat, fashionable boots and striking the most classy pose with his legs neatly crossed.”  Isaac Murphy would ride two days after this “champagne in streams and river” clambake.  This ride would signal the beginning of the demise of the great jockey Isaac Murphy.

Beginning of the End

The racetrack was the new Monmouth Park in New Jersey.  Murphy would ride a familiar and well respected horse, Firenzi.  Before the race, Murphy had the waiter bring him a glass of ‘imported Apollinaris water.’  He went on to handle the horse poorly during the race and even after finishing dead last, had trouble dismounting the horse.  The race was a disaster.  Ike Murphy could barely keep himself in the saddle and at the end of the race, he fell straight out of the saddle right there on the track.  He was suspected of being drunk and his treatment of the horse earned him an immediate suspension from riding at Monmouth Park. 

Though no one knew exactly what happened, it was clear to all that Isaac Murphy was not himself on that day.  He seemed dazed and disoriented in the race.  The New York Times, which was already very racially hostile towards the black jockeys, waited at the first ‘bit’ to pounce, and finally got its day.  “A popular idol was shattered at Monmouth Park yesterday.  That Isaac Murphy, who has always been considered the most gentlemanly as well as the most honest of jockeys, would have made such an exhibition of himself as he did was past belief.  He rode Firenzi in the Monmouth Handicap, and that he did so was alone the reason for the ridiculous way in which she was beaten, finishing last in the field of horses that she should have defeated with but little trouble.”

Ike Murphy and FriendsAnd pile on it did. Without hesitation or doubts as to the source of Murphy’s behavior on the track, The Times was unequivocal in its certitude.  It said Isaac’s trouble probably started with, “the gang of politicians loading a car and themselves up with liquor, (at the clambake) they went to Matt’s (Byrnes) house, where liquor was the largest part of the affair…  Although Mr. Byrnes kept his head clear, Murphy there laid the foundation for yesterday’s exhibition.”

Previously known to take a sip of champagne before a race as a “stimulant”, focus had now turned to what he had drunken before the race.  Both the waiter and his valet swore Ike only had water before the race.  Apollinaris water made the news with speculation on what it really might be.  This forced the British maker of the product to issue a statement:  “The statement published elsewhere of the Appollinaris Company, of London, England, effectually refutes the false charges brought against this popular beverage, and conclusively proves that it is purely a natural mineral water.”

Racing official Walter Vosburgh who stood alongside Murphy when he weighed in for the race said that he would have certainly noticed if there was anything wrong with Ike (such as being drunk) at the weigh-in, yet he noticed nothing.  But Mr. Vosburgh had his own explanation for Isaac Murphy’s disastrous performance.  He believed it was due to “flipping” – the rapid loss of weight undertaken in order to ride.  Mr. Vosburgh said Murphy “had been reducing fiercely, getting from his winter weight of close to 140 pounds down to under 110 pounds to ride Salvator in the June match against Tenny (two months earlier),” which meant that Ike had probably been starving himself for months, right up to the race, after which, a champagne filled fiesta at Byrne’s place might have added even further stomach complications. 

For Isaac Murphy, however, he would go to his grave believing that his water was drugged that day, an altogether believable scenario for a jockey who had come to be known as “the machine,” and who was nearly unbeatable on most of the horses he mounted.  His consistency was unparalleled and his skills unmatched in horseracing.  He started to see a doctor in New York in the aftermath of that disastrous incident and would tell a Lexington newspaper later in 1890, “I can’t say definitively I was poisoned….  but something suddenly got the matter with me and I have never been well since.”

Third Kentucky Derby Victory

groupAt the start of 1891, Ike and his wife threw a shower for his friend, jockey Tony Hamilton and his bride.  It was described as the social event of the year for black Lexington and included Kentucky Derby alumni Billy Walker and Isaac Lewis, and another top black jockey, Tommy Britton.  Later in the year, Ike was back in form at one of his best forums.  In front of a record crowd of an estimated twenty five thousand people, Murphy mounted Kingman to lead two other black jockeys to the top three finishes at Louisville:  Isaac Murphy victorious, Alfred “Monk” Overton second, and Robert “Tiny” Williams thirdTiny Williams would win at the 1891 Travers Stakes at Saratoga as well.  But this was also another black jockey-black trainer victory at the Kentucky Derby and even more important, the first victory for a black owner-black jockey-black trainer combination.  Kingman was trained by African American Dudley Allen who was also the lead partner in the winning Jacobin stable, thereby the primary owner of Kingman.  Isaac Murphy had captured his third Kentucky Derby victory.

Though on his way down, Murphy had still left his mark on racing.  He was now the first rider in the Derby’s sixteen-year history to capture three Derbies and two consecutive.  His record would remain for four decades until Earl Sande equaled it in 1930.  After the race, The Courier-Journal, which had always had some deference to the greatness of Isaac Murphy and other top black jockeys, wrote, “The greatest jockey on American turf.  His reputation for honesty and integrity is a matter of great pride among turfmen.”

By 1892, he was described by a friend as “showing the wear and tear of a sick spell.”  His mounts became more infrequent and that year, he was reduced to riding for a stable known more for its cock fighting than for its horse racing.  He tried his hand at his own small stable operation in 1893 but that too failed, after which he and his wife were forced to moderate their luxurious lifestyle.  Murphy then starred in an embarrassing horse show called “Derby Winner” with his old mount Freeland.  In 1894, he got an even further blow on being suspended at Kentucky’s Latonia for being drunk while racing, though he continued to squeeze a win here or there in the intervening years.

After winning a race in Kentucky in 1894, Ike Murphy spoke to Spirit of the Times writer Broad Church, a veteran racing writer who had been an admirer of his for over a decade.  “When in his prime he was never the peer of any jockey in America.  But for reasons pretty well known, he lost his grip several years ago and he himself appeared to be cognizant of that fact, although he essayed to ride at odd times.  At the Lexington fall meeting I had a quiet talk with him, when he appeared sad over the drift of events in connection with himself.  ‘I think I will go down to New Orleans’ he said, ‘and maybe I can make a reputation once more.  I am disgusted with the way they treat me in the East during the summer.  When I won it was all right, but when I lost, and when not on the best horses, they would say, ‘There, that nigger is drunk again.’  I tell you, I am disgusted and soured on the whole business.”


Isaac “Ike” Murphy died on February 12th, 1896, reportedly of pneumonia.  He was only about thirty-four or thirty-five years old.  His funeral was said to be the funeral of the century for black Kentucky, with tributes and cortege from the racing world, from both trainers and fellow jockeys alike.

His death reinvigorated speculation as to what might have caused his decline.  The Newspapers opined but their opinions centered mostly on alcohol and drinking.  On his death,The Spirit of the Times wrote, “He might have remained one of the leading jockeys until the time of his death had he not been addicted to drink.  His drinking propensities in large measure brought about his ruin and his early death.”

In retrospect and with knowledge of the later health problems that would plague jockeys, it is entirely possible that Ike Murphy was in fact a victim of the bulimic practice of flipping.  Top white jockey Jimmy McLaughlin had been forced out of the horseracing by the age of thirty-one for not being able to manage the weight requirements.  Countless others fled the US for Europe where they continued to manage excellent careers free of the draconian weight limitations of American horseracing.  Edward Hotaling cites incidents of lung diseases resulting from crash diets and intensive exercise and ‘sweat baths,’ which reduced their resistance to infections, as being common among jockeys of later years.  Murphy could have been an early victim.

Eighty years after his death and long forgotten by racing, Kentucky journalist Frank Borries jr. ledSoup Perkins a campaign to recognize and remember the glorious Ike Murphy.  As a result, Murphy’s body was dug up in 1967 and reinterred in Man O’ War Park outside of Lexington, featuring the great Eddie Arcaro (winner of five Kentucky Derbies) as guest speaker.  Eddie Arcaro called Ike “a man of great integrity and class.”   Said Arcaro, “He was a man who, if we lived at the same time, would have been a good friend of mine.”

Next: Tony Hamilton, Soup Perkins, Alonzo Clayton, and the other black jockeys who owned the last decade of the 19th century

For more on the black jockeys and jockey boy paintings for sale, see

Editors Note: In celebration of the history of black jockeys in the Kentucky Derby, we will spend a week chronicling the history of the great black jockeys who pioneered the sport but were then banished from the sport in the early 1900s, and from much of its history. Kentucky Derby Facts: Black jockeys won 8 of the first 16 Derbies and 15 of the first 28. 13 of the 15 jockeys in 1875's inaugural Derby were black, including the winning jockey, Oliver Lewis aboard his horse Aristides. Isaac "Ike" Murphy became the first jockey to capture successive Kentucky Derbies in 1891 and the first to win a total of three, and James “Wink” Winkfield would win successive races in 1901 and again in 1902 on his horse Alan-a-Dale. Other winners included Alonzo "Lonnie" Clayton, Babe Hurd, James "Soup" Perkins, Erskine Henderson, and Willie Simms.

(Sources include Edward Hotaling’s book, The Great Black Jockeys and The Library of Congress.)





Welcome to Ealy Mays Artworks

Celebration of over 150 years of Black Literary and Artistic development in Paris

Here you will find the works of one of the most prolific African American artists. Based in Paris, France, this selection includes current masterpieces as well retrospectives from a body of over 30 years as an ethnic artist painting in the United States, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Europe. Your choice of paintings, prints, posters, postcards, puzzles, memorabilia, T-shirts, collectibles, accessories,and more, is only a click away. Read more

It is the spectator and not life, that really mirrors art”  The Picture of Dorian Gray …Oscar Wilde

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