Did you know that a Black man rode the winning horse in the first Kentucky Derby in 1875?
Any other result would have been against the odds – 14 of the 15 jockeys in that race were Black. The early days of thoroughbred racing were dominated by Blacks. They worked as jockeys, trainers and grooms until the early 1900s. Black jockeys won 15 of the first 28 Kentucky Derbys. But as racing became more lucrative, Black men were shunted to the menial roles in the sport.
The most famous jockey at that time was Isaac Murphy (1861-1896). The Lexington, Ky., native won the Kentucky Derby three times (1884, 1890,1891). And he was on a hot streak. The American Derby race in Chicago was the most prestigious race at the time. Murphy won that four times (1884, 1885, 1886 and 1888). Unlike most Black jockeys, Murphy was very well paid. At the height of his career, he earned about $20,000 — $450,000 in today’s money. He won 628 of the 1,412 races he entered. That’s an average of 44% — a record that still stands, 115 years after his death.
Murphy died of pneumonia just 2 months shy of his 35th birthday. He was the first jockey inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. His remains were re-interred at the entrance of the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington. Since 1995, the National Turf Writers Association has given the Isaac Murphy Award to the jockey with best racing percentage for the year.