One of the greatest jockeys in the history of American racing, Isaac Burns Murphy was born on a farm in the Bluegrass not far from Lexington in 1861. His parents were enslaved. His mother, America Murphy, was a domestic servant on the farm. His father, Jerry Skillman, a field hand on a nearby farm, enlisted In the Union Army during the Civil War and, under the name Jerry Burns, died a soldier at Camp Nelson in nearby Jessamine County in 1864.
At 13, living in Lexington with his mother, Murphy became an apprentice stable boy to leading trainer Eli Jordan. At 14, he rode his first winner as a Jockey at a country track in Crab Orchard, 50 miles south of Lexington. At 15, in 1876, he was winning races at the Kentucky Association, then only two blocks from here, and at the Louisville Jockey Club, later known as Churchill Downs, and his racing career accelerated. (That same year, likely to honor his maternal grandfather, he changed his last name from Burns to Murphy.)
In the next two decades, Murphy rose to national prominence. He was the first jockey to win three Kentucky Derbys — on Buchanan in 1884, Riley in 1890 and Kingman in 1891. He won four American Derbys and five Latonia Derbys. He won the Travers, the oldest major Thoroughbred stakes race in the country. His record In the most prestigious races
In a celebrated 1890 match race at Sheepshead Bay in New York, Isaac Murphy rode the great Salvator to a record, photo-finish win over rival Tenny, ridden by famed white Jockey Edward "Snapper" Garrison. Henry Stull depicted the scene.
The race was among the most talked about of its time, not least because it pitted the era's best black jockey in America, Murphy, against the best white one, Garrison.