horse racing history

Isaac Burns Murphy

Considered one of the greatest jockeys in history, he won three Kentucky Derbies between 1884 and 1891. This feat wasn’t matched by another jockey until 1945. His career win record at 34% has yet to be equaled in American horse racing. He also was the first person to be inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. Why did his name fall into obscurity?

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Today, US horse racing has largely forgotten the black jockeys responsible for its early success and historical significance. Black jockeys were the stars of the racing world up until the early 1900’s, when institutionalized racism drove them out of the sport, and often out of the country to race abroad. When I say “drove them out,” I mean literally– black riders were often forced into, and over, the inside rail, as well as whipped in the face and across the hands by white riders while racing officials looked the other way.

Until black jockeys virtually disappeared from the racetrack, some of them were regarded as the greatest riders to ever sit a horse. Black jockeys won 15 of the first 28 runnings of the Kentucky Derby (13 of the 15 jockeys in the very first Kentucky Derby were black; it was won by Oliver Lewis aboard Aristides).

Isaac Murphy (1861-1896)
is still considered by many to be the greatest American jockey of all time. He won the Kentucky Derby three times (only three jockeys have won it more), and was the first to win it in back-to-back years. His win percentage, according to official records, was an incredible 34%. He was the first jockey inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 1955, when it was created. Each year, the Isaac Murphy award is given to the jockey with the highest win percentage for the year.

Jimmy Winkfield (1882-1974) won the Kentucky Derby consecutively in 1901 and 1902, and was second in 1903. He is the last black jockey to win the Kentucky Derby, and only two black jockeys have ridden in the race since (Marlon St. Julien in 2000 aboard Curule, Kevin Krigger in 2013 on Goldencents). He was forced to take his tack overseas where he found great celebrity riding in Russia. He was champion jockey 3 times there before the Russian Revolution forced him to move to France, where he continued his successful career until his retirement. He was posthumously inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2004.

Willie Simms (1870-1927) is the only black jockey to have captured all three jewels of the Triple Crown (though on different horses in different years). He won the Belmont back to back, was the first American jockey to win with an American horse in England, then won the Kentucky Derby in consecutive runnings. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1977.

And finally, one of the few black jockeys riding today, Kendrick Carmouche is a fixture of the Mid-Atlantic racing circuit. He was the first rider to take the Leading Jockey title four years in a row (2008-2011) at Parx Racetrack in Philadelphia, and oftens rides for some of the top trainers and owners in the business. He has yet to get a mount in the Kentucky Derby, but with his success over his 15 year career, it’s only a matter of time. He’s also one of the friendliest, most personable jockeys I’ve had the pleasure to deal with– always happy and optimistic, win or lose, he never has a bad word for his horse no matter how they run.

Bizarre Victorian fact of the day...

Horse racing was an extremely popular sport in the Victorian era and races attracted huge numbers of spectators. As a result of the large crowds, many such events resulted in fighting as the day went on. These incidents were usually confined to minor brawling. However in 1855 a race at Aston Park near Birmingham erupted into unprecedented levels of violence when a group of 11,000 men divided into two gangs of ‘British’ and 'Russians’ to re-enact battles of the Crimean War using ripped up fence-posts as weapons. The action spread into a neighbouring village and 16 locals were hospitalised.

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For the first time in 37 years, the Triple Crown has a winner

Today a bay colt named American Pharoah made history after winning the Belmont Stakes. 

Pharaoh had won two other important races this year: The Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. By winning the Belmont, the third in the series, he has joined only 11 other horses EVER as a winner of the Triple Crown. The first Triple Crown winner was Sir Barton in 1919, and the most recent winner before Pharaoh was Affirmed in 1978.

The 2015 Belmont Stakes had a minimum purse (prize) of $1.5 million. But breeding experts say that the win could bring Pharoah’s owners $75 million to $100 million in stud fees in the next five to six years.

Every year at the Kentucky Derby, crazy hat-wearing, mint julep-guzzling horse-gazers break into a passionate rendition of Kentucky’s state song, “My Old Kentucky Home.” As tradition goes, the University of Louisville Cardinal Marching Band accompanies the crowd as they croon a ballad that seems to be about people who miss their happy home. “The sun shines bright on my old Kentucky home/‘Tis summer and the people are gay” begins one version.

But Frank X Walker, Kentucky’s former Poet Laureate, suspects that most people are missing the point.

“I’m a Kentuckian, and I love my state,” Walker says. “But at the same time, you know, the memories, the history this conjures up, I think people sing it and are totally disconnected from the history, from the truth.”

Churchill Downer: The Forgotten Racial History Of Kentucky’s State Song

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