We all know the names of the remarkable horses who have graced the Churchill Downs track. (Who could forget Rich Strike‘s epic win at last year’s Derby?) But we also want to recognize the jockeys — the pros who steer those thoroughbreds toward the finish line.
Isaac Burns Murphy, born enslaved in 1861, is considered to be one of the greatest American jockeys of all time. He began working with horses in his teens, and started racing in 1875. He went on to win the Kentucky Derby three times, the Latonia Derby five times, and four of the first five runnings of the American Derby.
Isaac became well known for his horseback skills, as well as his honesty + loyalty. He is said to have refused to let champion Falsetto lose the 1879 Kenner Stakes, even after gamblers enticed him with bribes.
He died of pneumonia at the age of 35, and his grave was left untouched in an abandoned Lexington cemetery for years. In 1967, his remains were exhumed and reburied at the former Man o’ War racehorse burial site. Eleven years later, they were moved again — with Man o’ War’s remains — to the Kentucky Horse Park, where they still lie. To this day, Isaac is the only person buried at the park.
To learn more about this Derby-winning Kentucky native, check out “Isaac Murphy: The Rise and Fall of a Black Jockey” by Katherine C. Mooney.