The ‘Colored Archer’

By Tony McClean, BASN staff writer
Updated: February 20, 2005
Isaac Burns Murphy

This article first appear on BASN in 2005.

NEW HAVEN, Ct. (BASN) — In 1875, Oliver Lewis, a black jockey, rode on the winning horse in the very first running of Kentucky Derby.

However, Lewis and others are a major part of the superabundance of Black jockeys in the history of horse racing. African-American jockeys rode 14 of 15 horses in that first Kentucky Derby. The sport of horse racing was built with the talents of Blacks whose jobs typically included trainer, jockey, and owner. One extraordinary jockey in this history was named Isaac Burns Murphy. Murphy was born on May 7, 1861 in the Fayette County area of Kentucky. He first worked as an exercise boy at Lexington Stables, and acquired his first race mount in 1875 at the age of fourteen as a replacement rider. Murphy would win that race and would later go on to dominate the sport of horse racing. In 1879, he won a record 35 of 75 races entered. He won 45 of 51 starts at Saratoga in 1882, and on several days he rode winners in every race. Murphy was dubbed the “Colored Archer,” a reference to Fred Archer, a prominent English jockey at the time. Murphy’s abilities earned him the best mounts of his era. He soared to victory in three Kentucky Derbies, first in 1884 aboard Buchanan, again in 1890 on Riley, and in 1891 atop Kingman. With that feat, Murphy became the first back-to-back and three-time Kentucky Derby winner. He retired in 1892 to become a horse trainer. He achieved a record 628 wins in 1,412 races during the 15 seasons he rode. Isaac Murphy passed away in 1896. He was belatedly inducted into the inaugural class of the National Racing Museum and Hall of Fame at Saratoga in 1955.

His body was re-interred at the Kentucky Horse Park in Fayette County in 1967 to be buried next to the great horse Man o’ War at the Kentucky Horse Park’s entrance.

In 1995, the National Turf Writers Association established the Issac Murphy Award. The annual award is given to the jockey who has ridden at least 500 mounts and attained the highest win percentage.

While small in stature, Murphy still remains a giant in the sport of kings.