Today we will visit with two almost forgotten stars of the sporting world, Isaac Murphy (1860 – 1896) and Jimmy Winkfield (1882 – 1974). Horse Racing, the Sport of Kings, was America’s national sport from the late 1790’s through the early 1940’s. Except for a hiatus due to the Civil War, when every available horse was needed, horse racing dominated the sporting entertainment menu for many Americans. Black jockeys dominated horse racing from its inception until the early 1900’s. The greatest Black jockey and probably the greatest jockey, regardless of race or creed, of all time was Isaac Murphy. Isaac Murphy, born Isaac Burns in 1860, was the leading jockey in America in 1894. Murphy won 3 Kentucky Derby’s and had a remarkable 628 winners in 1412 starts (44%). Jimmy “Wink” Winkfield won more than 2600 races in a career that spanned 35 years. Winkfield was the last Black jockey to win back – to – back runnings of America’s most famous horse race, the Kentucky Derby in 1901 and 1902. It would be almost 80 years until the next Black jockey (Mark St. Julien) would even make a start in the Kentucky Derby.
Here is a biography of Isaac Burns Murphy (available here):
Isaac Burns Murphy (April 16, 1860 – February 12, 1896) was an African-American Hall of Fame jockey. The official Kentucky Derby website and the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame say that “Isaac Murphy is considered one of the greatest race riders in American history.”
Isaac Burns was born in Bourbon County, Kentucky. His father served in the Union army in the Civil War, until his death at Camp Nelson as a soldier in the United States Colored Troop, Company C, 114th infantry. After Burns’ father’s death, his family moved to Lexington, where they lived with Burns’ grandfather, Green Murphy. When he became a jockey at age 14, he changed his last name to Murphy to honor his grandfather.
Between 1877 and 1876, Isaac Murphy competed in eleven Kentucky Derbys, becoming the first jockey to win three Derbys: “Buchanan” in 1884, “Riley” in 1890, and “Kingman” in 1891. “Kingman” was owned and trained by Dudley Allen and is the only horse owned by an African-American to win the Derby.
As well, he is the only jockey to have won the Kentucky Derby, the Kentucky Oaks, and the Clark Handicap all in the same year (1884). Considered one of the great jockeys in American history, Murphy was dubbed the “Colored Archer,” a reference to Fred Archer, a prominent English jockey at the time.
Murphy won 628 of his 1,412 starts, a 44% victory rate that has never been equalled and a record about which Hall of Fame jockey Eddie Arcaro said: “There is no chance that his record of winning will ever be surpassed.  On its creation, Isaac Burns Murphy was the fhe first jockey to be inducted in the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame.
Isaac Murphy died of pneumonia in 1896 in Lexington, Kentucky and over time his unmarked grave was forgotten until Frank B. Borries, Jr., a University of Kentucky press specialist, spent three years searching for the grave site. In 1967, Murphy was reinterred at the old Man o’ War burial site but with the building of the Kentucky Horse Park, his remains were moved again to be buried next to Man o’ War at the Kentucky Horse Park’s entrance.
Here is a video detailing Isaac Murphy’s exploits:
Here is an article about Jimmy Winkfield (available here):
In the first Kentucky Derby, in 1875, 13 of the 15 riders were African Americans. So was the winning jockey, Oliver Lewis. Over the first 28 years the Derby was run, 15 of the winning riders were African American, says documentarian Steve Crump. “It would be nothing different than looking at an NFL field or an NBA court today, where so many of the participants were African American,” says Crump, producer of Forgotten at the Finish Line, a video documentary about black jockeys.
The legacy has its roots in slavery, Crump says, when plantation owners left the care, training and racing of horses to slaves. “You had jockeys who were riding for their freedom on many of the southern plantations,” he says. The early stars of the sport were “former slaves who were making a lot of money and had a greater lifestyle than some of their white counterparts at the time. ”
Jimmy Winkfield went from being the the youngest of 17 in a family of (free) sharecroppers, to racing for $8 a month — and eventually, $1,000 a race. He won back-to-back Kentucky Derbies at the turn of the century. But then Winkfield lost his third Derby attempt, and racing itself faltered, beset by anti-gambling movements and financial hard times. Edward Hotaling, author of the book The Great Black Jockeys, says Winkfield found himself in “a sport that was under tremendous economic pressure — and he was under tremendous racial pressure at the same time, as were the other black jockeys.” Some white jockeys resented the choice mounts and big money earned by successful black riders. Races became combative; there was even a riot between black and white jockeys in Chicago.
Blacklisted after he broke a contract with one horse owner by riding for another, Winkfield accepted an offer to race in Russia, where he became a big star again. Says Hotaling: “He was living an incredible life, living in the National Hotel in Moscow, having caviar for breakfast” and making more money than any American athlete back home. But by 1917 as the Bolsheviks and the Communists rose to power, racing suffered from its association with wealth and aristocracy. So Winkfield led some 200 jockeys, trainers and owners overland to Poland — a journey the group survived by eating their horses on the way.
Winkfield settled in France, married a Russian baroness, and returned to horse racing as a jockey, trainer and owner. He again found success — until the Nazis invaded, and commandeered his stables for their own horses. (Winkfield returned) to the United States. “By that time black jockeys had been totally forced out of the sport,” Hotaling says — even as they achieved success and fame in Europe. In 1953, Winkfield returned to France and raising horses.
In 1961, 60 years after he first rode to Derby victory, Jimmy Winkfield returned to Louisville for the race — and still found recognition and respect elusive. Though he had been invited to a pre-Derby dinner at Louisville’s luxurious Brown Hotel, “it was still segregated and so the doorman wouldn’t let us in,” recalls Winkfield’s daughter, Liliane Casey. Winkfield eventually was admitted, though at the dinner other guests snubbed him, Casey recalls. Then came the next day, at the race grounds. “We were given some seats… but nothing as far as recognition of his presence was done,” she remembers.
With Liliane Casey in the stands at Churchill Downs today will be one of Winkfield’s grandchildren, a veterinarian who specializes in horses. This time, Winkfield and his family will be formally recognized at a post-race reception for the Derby winner. Winkfield’s story also will be featured in the Kentucky Derby museum next year (2003). And Winkfield’s supporters are pushing his admission to the Thoroughbred Hall of Fame, so he can join two other African-American jockeys already honored there. (Winkfield was elected to racing’s Hall of Fame in 2004).
Thanks for your attention.