Heritage, History, Horse Racing

African Americans in Racing

In the early 19th century, Southern Thoroughbred breeders, including those in Kentucky, relied on slaves to care for, ride, and train their horses. After emancipation, many of these former slaves remained on the farms and, to a large degree, it was their expertise that allowed Kentucky to remain the nation’s Thoroughbred breeding center. In addition to mucking stalls and grooming horses, African Americans also became skilled and successful jockeys, trainers and eventually owners.

During Reconstruction, black jockeys dominated on America’s tracks, and many of the country’s most prestigious races were won by horses trained, ridden and in some cases owned, by African Americans. Racing was America’s favorite sport, and jockeys such as Isaac Murphy were national sport’s heroes.

In 1896, the Supreme Court’s decision in Plessy v. Ferguson endorsing the “separate but equal” doctrine led to the rise of racial discrimination throughout the country, including its racetracks. By the 1911 Kentucky Derby, only two jockeys were African American. Jockey, Henry King’s tenth place finish in 1921 marked the last African American in the 20th century to ride in the nation’s most famous race.

Kentucky’s African American Horsemen

National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame Inductees

Isaac Murphy (jockey, owner – inducted 1955)
Edward Dudley Brown (jockey, trainer and owner – inducted 1984)
Ansel Williamson (trainer – inducted 1998)
Jimmy Winkfield (jockey, trainer and owner – inducted 2004)
Shelby “Pike” Barnes (jockey – inducted 2011)

Isaac Burns Murphy

Isaac Burns Murphy was born to America Murphy in Clark County, Kentucky in January of 1861. After emancipation and the death of his father in the Civil War, Isaac and his mother moved to Lexington where he received his first formal education. The African American community, including America, realized the importance of an education and strong moral and religious convictions if their children were to become successful adults.

When Isaac was 13, America developed tuberculosis. Realizing that her death was imminent and that her son would need a profession, she secured an apprenticeship for him with Thoroughbred breeders James T. Williams and Richard Owings. There, under the watchful eye of trainer and family friend, Eli Jordan, Isaac’s talent blossomed and his affinity for horses became evident. Aside from Isaac’s equestrian skills, Jordan also stressed the importance of being a good and honest man: traits that would set him apart from many of his racing counterparts, and allow him to become the greatest jockey in America and its most popular sports figure.

For more information regarding Isaac Murphy, we invite you to visit Lexington’s restored African Cemetery No. 2 at 419 East Seventh Street and the Isaac Murphy Memorial Art Garden at East Third Street and Midland Avenue, Lexington.

Isaac Murphy Racing Highlights

  • First jockey inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame
  • 44% win record remains best of all-time
  • First jockey to win three Kentucky Derbys (1884, 1890 and 1891)
  • Won four American Derbys (1884 – 1886, 1888)
  • Won five Latonia Derbys (1883 – 1886 and 1891)
  • Riding Salvator, Murphy defeated Tenny in the famous 1890 Suburban Handicap

Other Significant Jockeys, Trainers and Owners

Dudley Allen (trainer, owner), Charles Anderson (trainer), Tommy Britton (jockey), Clem Brooks (trainer), Burbridge’s Harry (trainer), Luther Carr (jockey), Joe Colston (jockey), Raleigh Colston (jockey, trainer), Thomas Colston, (trainer), Oscar Dishman (trainer), Lew (jockey), Garret Davis Lewis (jockey), Isaac Lewis (jockey), Oliver Lewis (jockey, trainer), Bud Haggins (jockey, trainer), Tom Harbut (trainer), Will Harbut (trainer), Erkshine Henderson (jockey), Theopholius Irvine, Sr. (trainer), Theopholius Irvine, Jr. (trainer), Albert Ison (jockey), Robert Isom (jockey), John H. Jackson, (jockey), Isaac Johnston (jockey, trainer), Eli Jordan (trainer), Tommy Knight (jockey), Marshall Lilly (trainer), Courtney Matthews (trainer), Frank Perkins (trainer), James “Soup” Perkins (jockey), William Perkins (trainer), Arthur Perossier (trainer), Abraham Perry (trainer), William Porter (jockey), Carl Sitgraves (trainer), John Stovall (jockey), William “Billy” Walker, (jockey).

More than 80 African American horsemen and Isaac Murphy’s wife, Lucy, are buried in the restored African Cemetery No. 2 in Lexington. The cemetery is open to the public, and is located at 419 East Seventh Street.