Isaac Murphy was born as Isaac Burns near Frankfort, Kentucky, to former enslaved parents James Burns and a mother whose name is unknown. After his father’s death, Isaac and his mother moved to live with her father, Green Murphy, in Lexington, Kentucky.
Isaac changed his last name to Murphy once he started racing horses as a tribute to his grandfather. Young Isaac got his start in horse racing when his mother worked at the racing stable in Lexington. He began his riding career at 14, and by the end of 1876, Isaac won eleven races at Lexington.
In 1877 he won 19 races and rode in his first Kentucky Derby, coming in fourth place. Isaac Murphy rode in eleven Kentucky Derbies, the first jockey to ride three Kentucky Derby winners, Buchanon (1884), Riley (1890), and Kingman (1891).
Isaac Murphy is the only jockey to have won the Kentucky Derby, the Kentucky Oaks, and the Clark Handicap in the same year (1884). The son of formerly enslaved parents became one of America’s most recognizable athletes during an era when horse racing was one of the country’s pastimes. He has won an impressive 44 percent of all the races he rode, a record still unmatched.
He is an American Hall of Fame jockey who is considered one of the best jockeys to ever race.